The benefits of yoga are not limited to just making your body flexible. Regular yoga can help you de-stress, increase your body awareness, breathing patterns, and metabolism. It is a mindfulness practice where the focus is on overall well-being rather than specific goals. And as International Yoga Day approaches us, and gyms begin to open, it is okay to be tempted to sacrifice the yoga mat and challenging stretches for more weight-based workouts to bring back the long lost pump. But maybe that is because yoga is not associated with muscle-building.But that’s probably because fitness enthusiasts have not delved deeper into yoga’s ability to also generate athletic progress.
Research on Hatha Yoga published in the journal of Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2015, found that a group which went through a 12-week yoga programme “demonstrated significant improvements” in “cardiorespiratory endurance (resting heart rate and maximal oxygen uptake), muscular strength and endurance (curl-up and push-up tests), and lower back and hamstring flexibility.”
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Yoga grandmaster Akshar, who has trained the likes of Australian cricketer Mathew Hayden and India’s Commonwealth gold medallist wrestlers Geeta and Babita Phogat, says that there are certain asanas and practices in yoga which focus on muscle and strength building. “Building muscle would require one to practice advanced asanas. Some of these are the chaturang dandasana (four-limbed staff pose), the astavakrasana (eight-angle pose), and the utkasana (chair pose) in which a shorter count and more reps will work for fat reduction and a longer hold will develop the lower body muscles,” he says.
But the Bengaluru-based yoga master also believes in mixing up one’s fitness regimen and is very enthusiastic about weight training and playing a sport. He also says that the biggest change in the athletic industry is how yoga is being used for conditioning. “Yoga’s greatest gift to an athlete is increasing his resilience to injuries. It is an excellent injury prevention practice for the mind and the body. For instance, when I teach yoga to a football team, we focus on asanas which would help prevent hamstring pulls.”
Yoga may certainly not seem like an attractive route for those who want to quickly gain muscle and definition. That is mainly because it takes more time to master an advanced yoga pose and modify its intensity than to perform a set of bicep curls. But adding yoga to your weekly gym schedule may work wonders.
For a 2011 study, 49 men and 30 women practiced surya namaskars for 24 weeks, and calculated the increased strength by comparing the 1RM (one-rep max) weights by using the bench press and the shoulder press to measure upper body strength. The results showed a significant improvement in lifting. “In the present study, sun salutation practice has led to a decrease in body weight and body fat percentage and an increase in lean body mass,” says the paper published in the Asian Journal of Sports Medicine.
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“I suffered a lower back injury while performing a clean of 140kg,” says Mukesh Arya, who has represented Delhi in weightlifting at the nationals. The 27-year-old works as a trainer at a fitness chain and has a back squat 1RM of 240kg. “As soon as I felt that pinching pain I knew I would be out of action for a few weeks. That is when I did yoga regularly, not only to ease the injury but also so that it doesn’t become recurring.”
Arya says that he does yoga stretches after every workout, and that means an increased range of motion and flexibility of the muscles. “Muscles become stiff after heavy lifting and yoga releases them. Flexible, high range of motion muscles also have a better chance of growing quickly,” he adds.
The only limitation of the studies quoted above is the limited amount of exercises where an increment can be seen. The main advantage of weight-training in the gym is that one can isolate muscles using different equipment. Gym-goers will never do just a bench press, or a shoulder press, or a deadlift, which are three major lifts that yoga seems to drastically improve. They will also want to do weighted pull-ups, hammer curls, one arm rows, side raises, and dozens of other exercises which even allows them to separate the long head from the short head of the bicep.
The general science of muscle-building is that the body needs to go through progressive overload and metabolic stress. If you want to achieve this only through yoga, it will require a lot of determination, patience, and skill. Calisthenics is a good starting point here since it combines a lot of yoga moves along with conventional exercises like pull-ups and handstand pushups. The other option is to try power yoga, and research says that it produces more muscle activity than standard-speed yoga.
That said, depending on your goals, it would be clever to not look at your fitness journey as comprising just one road. If that goal is muscle-building, the incorporation of conventional weight-lifting with resistance bands, pilates. On the other hand, yoga would not only increase your bulk, but your overall athletic performance, injury resistance, and mindfulness when you’re training. After all, not every workout routine should be about maxing out your reps.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.