Balance Strength & Flexibility: Choosing & Arranging Poses

Another specific area of balance to consider is strength and flexibility.

Why This is Particularly Relevant

  • While this is one of the many yin/yang aspects of being human, the topic of strength and flexibility balance is also particularly relevant as it relates to the tendency among some yoga practitioners to overstretch.
  • In addition, modern postural yoga asana has come to feature an abundance of particular types of movements — and not others. Thus, a lifestyle that includes excessive amounts of particular asana without complementary movements will tend to lead to imbalance. (See also: Andrey Lappa’s philosophy here and Trina Altman’s article here)

It’s also worth noting that oftentimes when something feels tight or stiff, it’s actually weak. If you’ve been stretching your hips for the last decade and they still feel tight, that could be a sign that you could benefit from strengthening them. You might even find that the sensations of stiffness and tightness go away when your muscles are strong enough to support your joints. – Trina Altman

There is Some Complexity

  • The topic of balancing strength and flexibility is complex in part because these qualities are not general abilities but are specific to a particular part of the body.
  • For example, a person might have strong quadriceps and weak hamstrings or tight lumbar muscles and flexible adductors.
  • There tend to be patterns, of course, such as in Lower Crossed Syndrome where some muscles around the hip and spine become tight and some become weak and stretched. (See more: Yoga & Conditions of the Back & Spine.) But the point is that not only do different students have different situations, their own bodies have a fascinating mix of needs.
  • On another note, yoga asana class is, of course, not required to do everything and be everything in terms of a person’s movement. There are plenty of other physical activities that people can and do participate in and such activities as resistance training, walking or running, swimming or physical therapy can be tasked with some of a person’s physical needs.
  • In fact, a common benefit of asana is its ability to bring balance to the physical effects of gardening, hiking, cycling and so on.

Promoting Balance

The good news is that yoga is supremely effective at addressing the complexity of humans through a holistic approach that has at its foundation such effective assumptions as:

In addition, when deciding on the inclusion of strengthening vs. lengthening poses in a pose sequence, consider such factors as these:

Sage Rountree speaks to this topic here:

All sports injuries are the result of some kind of imbalance. Sometimes you literally lose your balance and fall, causing an acute injury like a sprained ankle or torn ACL. More insidiously, training itself can develop an imbalance between strength and flexibility that leads to an overuse injury like patellar tendonitis or piriformis syndrome. To correct such muscular imbalance in your body, you need to open any constricted areas — those where you don’t have enough flexibility to move easily — and to strengthen the relatively weak areas. The opening has to precede the strengthening for the strengthening to have full effect; otherwise, you’re fighting against the limitations tightness imposes. Take, for example, someone like me who’s trying to improve her posture to correct a tendency to slump. Passive backbends will help stretch the front of the chest, which is overtight; once that’s open, active backbends will strengthen the back muscles, which are comparatively weak. – Sage Rountree

Rountree adds the insight that opening needs to precede strengthening due to the limitations that tightness brings.

  • Note that this advice is NOT about how to sequence poses within a class (where, often, strengthening poses such as Utkatasana (Chair Pose) and Navasana (Boat Pose) are sequenced earlier in class than stretching)
  • Rather, her point is regarding working more generally on a longer-term objective of gaining “balanced strength.”

Specific Strengthening Considerations

Two types of strengthening often noted as missing from some asana classes are:

  1. Upper body pulling movements
  2. Hip strengthening and stabilizing

Specific Strengthening Recommendations

Yoga could start incorporating more upper body–pulling movements… As adults, most of our daily tasks involve pushing motions (think strollers, shopping carts, lawn mowers). The same is true in modern postural yoga asana. For example, you are often pushing the ground away in many poses like Plank, Downward-Facing Dog and Crow. However, there are few opportunities to pull against load or your own body weight…

Yoga could start including more hip strength and stability work to balance out all the hip opening… Most of the people taking yoga classes today are stiff men who sit at desks all day and women who have a lot of natural flexibility. While it’s not bad to open your hips, these populations are not always best served by extensive hip opening, at least in the beginning. A wiser approach would be to build hip stability first for control of your range of motion as you increase mobility…

Yoga could start focusing on strength at end range of motion to reduce the risk of injury from passive stretching… While it’s not bad to practice asana in end range of motion, if you intend to do it, it’s smart to be strong in those ranges. An example of this is Supta Padangusthasana B. When you practice this pose with a strap, you are exploring your passive end range of motion. When you remove the strap and perform the same action, you’ll discover your active range of motion. The difference between your passive range of motion and your active range of motion can show you the importance of finding strength and control in ranges of motion that you can actually use. Those last couple inches, where you’re most passive, demonstrate the range where you have the least amount of muscular support or control and are most likely to get injured. – Trina Altman