Functional Fitness is a great tool to functionally increase the functional strength of our body. This means that strength is inrceased and fully utilized even in the higher range of motion. This translates to improvements in mobility and balance for daily activity.
But can Yoga for strength be a sufficient alternative to Functional Fitness if that’s your main area of interest?
Yoga is actually a very good alternative to functional fitness. Most people consider yoga a relaxing, stretching session but this is not entirely true. Most yoga types involve quite intense isometric strength movements such as the plank, goddess squat, or warrior (lunge).
Power Yoga on Strength, Balance, and Physical Fitness
Yoga styles like Ashtanga and Power Yoga are the main types of yoga that will significantly improve your functional strength. These styles include dominant dynamic bodyweight exercises, through sequences with efficient transitions.
Yoga is great for strength, especially the type that incorporates many balancing poses. This ensures stability activation and proper strength in their weak sports as well as in older adults, by improving overall balance and movement efficiency.
Yoga has many positive effects on strength and balance, without us realizing it during training. Many athletes lack some of the specific mobility, balance, and flexibility in certain moves, which can further increase performance.
Think of any yoga session and how many times you pushed from downward dog through vinyasa to cobra, around 30 times per class. That is tremendous work for your shoulders, core, chest, and back.
Aside from this, many arm balancing and one-legged poses will improve your vestibular balance and intramuscular coordination which can prevent falls, improve neuroplasticity and enhance overall balance.
When it comes to strength, any of the repetitive movements in the transitions, along with squats, push-ups, lunges, and twists we don’t even recognize we work on, can aid in our strength.
Toning your body, losing some weight, increasing muscular strength and endurance, balance improvements, and core toning are some of the benefits that yoga practices can offer to improve physical fitness.
Science: Yoga Effects on Physical Fitness, Balance and Strength
As a physical practice yoga comes with many potential benefits for our musculoskeletal system. Many of these abilities like strength and balance or muscular endurance have a lot to do with our vestibular system, neuromuscular control, energetic physiology, and many more.
Here are a couple of Evidence-Based facts on yoga in relation to balance, strength, and physical fitness:
- Improvements in overall Physical fitness
- Increased Range of Motion and Joint Mobility
- Significant Improvements in Agility, Coordination, and Balance
- Improved Balance, Singe Leg Standing Poses
- Improved Cardiovascular Performance and Endurance
- Improved Muscular Strength and Muscular Endurance
- Longer duration of withstanding Balancing Poses
- Improved Upper Limb and Abdominal Strength
- Improved Quality of Life
- Reduced Incidence of Falls
- Improved Strid Speed, Physical Confidence, and Legs Flexibility
These are the main improvements seen throughout those studies, shown in the sections below. Of course, there are many other benefits regarding yogic training and physical performance, but those are the main evidence-based ones.
From abdominal core strength, which is crucial to shoulder and hip mobility and muscular endurance, yoga training is worth pursuing if you want to improve your health and fitness.
Physical Fitness & Yoga
There are many studies on the effects of yoga on physical fitness, and the collected data shows very promising evidence for the positive effects of yoga.
Physical fitness is defined as the health and well-being, the ability of an individual to perform a given physical task. Now it’s safe to say there are many levels of physical fitness, and if the top athletes are at the peak of it, normal non-athlete humans have certain measures they should live up to.
Depending on age, health, and preoccupation, these measures vary a lot. But, if one can achieve the basic physical tasks and function properly throughout his daily activities without getting too tired or feeling pain, he is considered physically healthy.
So physical fitness has a lot to do with sports performance abilities like strength, aerobic endurance, balance, coordination, speed, and many more.
Hatha yoga was introduced to 15 active participants involved in this study for 8 weeks. The training consisted of 10 min. pranayama, 15 min. dynamic warm-ups, 50 min. asanas and 5-minute supine relaxation in savasana. The subjects who did yoga had significant improvements in agility, strength, power, and speed, in comparison to the other 15 in the control group. This may further improve well-being and health. (1)
Bikram yoga was also explored for its effects on physical fitness. In this study, 10 active participants underwent a 90-minute daily Bikram Yoga session under standardized supervised postures, in the right heat and humidity. Yoga practitioners have gained deadlift strength, improved lower back and hamstring flexibility, shoulder flexibility, and reduced body fat. While handgrip strength and cardiovascular measures stayed the same, the short-term yoga protocol had many positive musculoskeletal fitness effects. (2)
Yoga Effects on Strength and Endurance
Yoga can also positively influence strength and muscular endurance, here are a couple of studies showing these findings:
Hatha yoga (12 weeks) had multiple effects on human health and physical fitness, in which improvements in cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular strength, and endurance were pretty significant in the yoga group. VO2max was increased, and practitioners showed better results on curl-up and push-up tests and hamstring flexibility. (3)
Hatha Yoga (8 weeks) improved flexibility by 13-35%. On average participants were able to perform 14 more curl-ups and 6 more push-ups. The Balance time in the specific pose improved by 17 seconds, plus legs and ankle strengthening were shown. (4)
In terms of muscle endurance, yoga also significantly improved core and arm strength, which meant better sit-up and push-up scores. (5)
In female hockey players, an 8-week yoga protocol improved many aspects of physical fitness such as muscular strength, endurance, flexibility, and agility. This provides good enough evidence for how yoga can help athletes to improve their sports performance. (6)
Yoga on Balance and Mobility
Balance and mobility are some of the most important assets of physical health and fitness, not just to prevent injuries but also to live a better more active lifestyle. People with greater balance have better neuromuscular coordination and control, and people with better mobility can access specific poses, improve sports performance and ease movement.
Yoga, as a functional tool can help us improve flexibility, balance and mobility. Here are a couple of evidence-based data on yoga in relation to balance and mobility.
It turns out that in a total of 307 participants reviewed, yoga had a small effect on balance performance and a medium on physical mobility. (7)
Falls are pretty serious for older people since they might cause injury or disability. Active individuals have a lower risk of falls and overall potential injury, simply because their cartilage, bones, muscles, and joints are more nourished, strong, and flexible at the same time.
Research also shows Tai Chi improves pain, and quality of life while also reducing pain and the number of falls.(8) In young college students besides balance overall mobility may be improved with yogic training and this could further improve sports performance. (9)
As the research shows, balance is one of the primary improvements from yoga. Analyzing data on yoga & balance has shown a positive correlation in 11 studies which varied by yoga style, duration, and frequency. (10)
In women over 65 years of age, Iyengar yoga poses were shown to prevent fall incidence. The training improved stride speed, overall physical confidence, leg flexibility, and one-leg stance balance. (11)
Power Yoga Special
One of the most unique styles of yoga that focuses on building strength and balance is Power Yoga. As a branch of Ashtanga yoga, Power yoga focuses on many balancing poses, isometric contractions, and transitions which will make you work hard and sweat.
The point of ashtanga yoga is to tap into your personal power, both physically and mentally. A very popular style of yoga that involves the purification of your mind and body also follows the eight limbs and is known to significantly change one’s lifestyle choices, both from a moral and nutritional perspective.
Power Yoga allows people to access a great yoga practice that will strengthen the core, shoulders, back, and legs, through a series of movements and asanas. The versatility and adaptability are what make this style unique for strength building.
It is important to mention that power yoga is for those who are more athletic, active, and strong, rather than elderly amateurs. This class has loud music, balancing poses, sweaty transitions, and a hot environment.
Best Balance and Strength Building Yoga poses
Ashtanga yoga incorporates the Surya Namaskara sequence, which involves fall down, warrior, downward-facing dog, cobra, chair pose, prayer pose, and raised arms pose.
To many, this seems very easy, but after a couple of transitions, our shoulders and core have worked pretty well to sustain these transitions smoothly. If we continue with extra balancing arm work, it is a pretty good shoulder, chest, triceps, and even back workout.
Here is a couple of Ashtanga or Power Yoga poses, best for building unilateral and bilateral balance, core and shoulder strength, and full-body stability.
- Tadasana – Mountain Pose can work your quads, glutes, and adductors if you can contract and push your pelvis forward consciously. Activating the right muscles will even work lower abdominal and shoulder retractors.
- Utkatasana – Chair pose, with your hand above your head, this exercise can strengthen and lengthen both neck and back muscles, improve posture and activate your glutes and quadriceps muscles.
- Vrksasana – Tree pose builds unilateral strength and balance, since you put all your weight on one leg, having the other footrest on your standing leg. From here you can lower to activate more quadriceps and gluteus muscles.
- Utthita Hasta Padangustasana – Extended Hand to big toe Pose can definitely make you sweat. A lot harder than it might look and works your whole body, all the stabilizers are involved and it depends a lot on our hamstring flexibility.
- Bakasana – Crow pose is one of the easier arm balancing poses. As you progress you push the knees up higher on your triceps and shift your weight forward until you fly. This works your shoulders as well as other push motion muscles such as the chest and triceps, but also a lot of core is involved.
- Pinchamayurasana – Forearm stand is more of an advanced level pose, where you hold your body as in a handstand, it’s just that you stand on your forearms. This works your shoulders and core pretty efficiently.
- Adho Mukha Vrksasana – Handstand is one of the basic, but still pretty challenging balancing pose which involves full-body activation if done properly. Yeah, even your legs are involved in a proper handstand. Mostly hip flexors, abdominals, inner thighs, lower back, and shoulders are activated during a handstand.
- Garudasana – Eagle Pose is one of the fancier ancient exercises done by twisting and wrapping your arms and legs around and reaching up. This activates shoulder and back muscles, but is also a pretty good balancer for the standing leg too, and involves our core.
- Anjaneyasana – High lunge is also one of the easier balancing poses to do since we can separate our feet to be more stable. However easy it seems, it requires quite good work for your inner tights and core to keep it smooth and non-jiggly.
- Virabhadrasana I, II, and III are Warrior I, II, and III poses which are a great and easy way to work the legs, especially the quadriceps and glutes, and also involve our core and shoulder, especially in a longer duration of this exercise.
- Utkata Konasana – Goddess pose is also a good strength builder. It involves all of our leg muscles, including the adductors, abductors, hamstring, glutes, and quads. For those lifting on their toes, it does activate the calves too.
- Natarajasana – Dancer Pose is one of the fanciest aesthetically pleasing poses in yoga. It involves single-leg balancing while you pull the other leg from behind, working all the muscles of your standing leg but also core, lower and upper back.
- Ardha Chandrasana – Half Moon pose is one of the best side torso stretching poses. It also involves single-leg balancing, light twists, core work, and arms spread. One of the best single-leg balancers, suitable even for amateurs with the usage of a block for hand support.
Power and Ashtanga Yoga are some of the best styles to build strength and balance. Yoga as a unique style of body-mind practice incorporates different levels of balance work, including your vestibular balance & focus, rather than just neuromuscular coordination. Yoga has been proven effective for balance, strength, mobility, and physical fitness in many studies. This may further reduce the incidence of falls and improve the overall quality of life and physical confidence. Yoga incorporates many balancing exercises from single-leg stands to arm balancing, which strengthens core, shoulders, and leg muscles mostly.