Teaching yoga on beautiful Ambergris Caye, Belize has introduced me to many wonderful locals and tourists, and them to yoga. Some of my more regular students have tried yoga sporadically or were complete novices. I am often greeted with “Oh I really felt my muscles after the last class!” followed by big grins and excitement for another class.
Two women, in particular, have had a lifetime of fitness and spent hours in gyms lifting weights to maintain their muscular and athletic physiques. Now they have replaced their weight training with daily yoga classes. Neither expected to become such yoga devotees but after quickly discovering smaller muscles groups that are harder to target with weight training and rapidly developing long sleek muscles, they felt the benefits of yoga better suited their personal fitness goals.
While yoga, especially certain styles, improves our total fitness, there are many other benefits of yoga such as reducing stress, increasing flexibility and focus while heightening inner connectedness. The high degree of muscle toning and strengthening can often surprise those new to yoga.
Most of my classes are in the style of Hatha Vinyasa which synchronizes breath and movement through different asanas or poses. Looking at yoga from the physical fitness aspect, this type of yoga becomes in essence, aerobic exercise since oxygen and activeness are linked and ever present. Sun salutations are included in every class which coordinates each movement with an inhalation or exhalation. The inhalation brings oxygen to our muscle tissues so they can function and develop optimally. The exhalation brings calmness to the mind and body so we can stay focused on really experiencing the pose and activating each and every muscle. Depending on the fitness level the heart rate and heat in the body should have increased after 1 to 5 sun salutations.
The sun salutation incorporates poses that use leg, arm and core strength like most of the other poses in yoga. When in a down dog, cobra or back bend we are using our limbs and core to lift our own body weight. This can be surprisingly challenging considering we carry ourselves around throughout the day. The poses require us to use large and small muscles moving in many different directions, unlike weight lifting which focuses on one dimension such as the bicep curl that develops a single muscle moving in a singular direction.
The common belief that yoga’s primary physical benefit is to increase flexibility is also key to building sleek elongated muscles. Yoga relies on eccentric contraction of the muscles so while the muscle is being strengthened it is also being stretched, creating a toned but lengthened muscle. Many of the poses in yoga are held for a number of breathes and repeated throughout the practice so along with strength, muscle endurance is improving. In Warrior II it is unexpectedly challenging to hold our arms out, shoulder height with the palms facing down for 10 slow breathes. Building up the ability to hold a pose, while activating every muscle and continuously maintaining a deep slow inhalation and exhalation balances out each of our muscle groups and will translate into our lives outside of the yoga room whether we’re walking, sitting, lifting our children or diving in Belize.
Finding the Right Yoga Class
To achieve the greatest strength training from yoga, it is important to find a class that suits your level. Proper alignment is very important and your teacher should emphasize the correct positioning of the muscular and skeletal system for you to gain the most benefits and to prevent injury. For those new to yoga, a beginner’s class would give you the fundamentals which would carry you into more advanced levels and also prevent feeling overwhelmed. Your yoga teacher should offer gentle adjustments to improve alignment and techniques to activate muscles that might be under used.
In 1997, after a dear and honest friend finally pointed out that my weight lifting regime at the gym was making me look like a body builder (which was not my goal) I turned to yoga. Now at 40 years old, I love the strength I feel in my arms, legs and core knowing that I can walk on the beach for hours, swim an afternoon away, or carry a 5 gallon bottle of water home if I need to. And yes, my mind and spirit have also been strengthened from my yoga practice.
This post was written by Tara Darell, a Yoga Instructor at the Exotic Caye Beach Resort on Ambergris Caye, Belize. To learn more about yoga classes at the resort and to discover the benefits of yoga for yourself, click here.