Why you should add weights to your yoga practice

by Andrea Ferretti

To stave off muscle loss, support flexible joints, or add oomph to tough poses, a little strength training can go a long way.

Small but mighty is an apt description of yoga teacher Amy Ippoliti. When you see the petite powerhouse effortlessly rock deep backbends and arm balances, it’s hard to imagine that just over a year ago she suffered a shoulder injury that interfered with her regular practice. Clearly, her highly developed body awareness and her consistent yoga practice were important in her healing. But her full recovery, she says, required open-mindedness: After months of trying to heal the injury through yoga, she did what some yogis deem blasphemous—she hired a personal trainer.

She’s more than glad she did. The cross-training healed her injury and gave her the stability to do her favorite poses without pain. “I started to become someone who felt like it was great to bring in other disciplines,” she says. “Not only was I getting toned up again, I was starting to see significant improvement in my injuries. Strengthening my back muscles specifically helped my shoulder.” Although Ippoliti had always believed that her yoga practice could—and should—be a cure-all for everything, she’s now a believer in opening up to different modalities when it serves her. “I can still do my yoga practice traditionally. I’ve been enhanced by going to the gym, and I’m able to do my yoga practice even better.”

Other yogis see the benefits of combining traditional yoga practice with weight training to create a healthy, balanced regimen. Bo Forbes, a therapeutic vinyasa teacher in Boston, has been combining yoga and weight training for more than a decade in her work with professional athletes. Using her method, Functional Integrated Yoga, Forbes teaches athletes traditional yoga classes on the mat and then incorporates aspects of the yoga practice into their routines in the gym. Watching the athletes both on the mat and in their teams’ training rooms has helped Forbes troubleshoot injuries and create more ease and body awareness in her athletes. “For me, weight training isn’t just about building brute strength. It’s about building self-awareness,” she says.

Forbes points out that it’s the students who seem like the yoga “naturals”—those who are flexible to the point of being hypermobile—who become injured. It’s these students who need to build strength and awareness, especially around their joints, so that they don’t unconsciously push themselves too far into a pose and create an injury. Weight training can be an efficient way for bendy types to build strength and bolster muscle awareness so that they’re working from a place of integration in the body, tapping into equal amounts of flexibility and strength in their poses. “I’m always looking for integrated flexibility. I think that flexibility without strength is out of balance, and strength without flexibility is, too.”

Stave Off Muscle Loss

Weight training combined with yoga practice can also be a great way to maintain strength as you age. Countless studies show that a lack of exercise can lead to muscle mass decline beginning at age 40. If you stay sedentary, by the age of 70 you could lose about 30 percent of your muscle mass. Lifting weights two to three times per week builds muscle and bone density and helps with balance. And although doing yoga regularly can bring similar benefits, it’s important to introduce your body to new challenges from time to time to avoid hitting a plateau.

As Ippoliti can attest, adding just a little bit of weight training to your routine will give you extra oomph in your poses, especially if you are naturally flexible and struggle to build strength. “I started to feel extra-powerful in my Chaturangas, and my stamina in standing poses improved,” she says. She also noticed, for the first time, that her hamstrings were weak. All of these factors renewed her motivation to do poses she’d stopped doing and got her out of some of her own home-practice ruts.

If the idea of going to the gym sounds torturously boring, or if you feel like you’re cheating on your yoga practice, you can try Forbes’s approach by bringing aspects of your yoga practice into the weight room. Conscious Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath) is her No.1 focus. “I integrate the principles of vinyasa into weightlifting,” she says. “There’s a time to inhale and a time to exhale. If you’re doing a biceps curl, you inhale to prepare; then you exhale as you curl your arm toward you. Take another breath in, and then exhale again as you lower your arm slowly.” Along with breathwork, Forbes teaches two of the bandhas, or locks—Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock) and Mula Bandha (Root Lock)—to help awaken the deep core muscles so that they can support the spine. She started incorporating this subtle abdominal work in the weight room after noticing that many weightlifters work on the superficial muscles of the back and abdominals, which can tax the back in the long run. (If you’ve never done the locks, it’s easiest to start with Uddiyana.) Finally, Forbes encourages her students to bring all of their knowledge about bodily alignment with them when they lift weights. Ippoliti agrees that the body awareness that yogis bring to the table helps them at the gym. “Your body awareness as a yogi is really going to be an asset in how you progress,” she says.

Ippoliti still hits the gym regularly with her personal trainer because she believes that weight training keeps her body in balance and enhances her yoga practice. She points out that, these days, yoga is being mixed with all sorts of disciplines, from hooping to golf to music and dance. From her point of view, these are all ways that yoga is evolving and remaining relevant to what’s happening in the world around us. She brings up the point that 5,000 years ago, yogis didn’t sit at computers all day long. In her mind, if there’s a way to address that type of modern physical challenge efficiently and to ensure you’re not bringing bad postural habits to the yoga mat, then what’s to argue about? “We’re cross-pollinating these disciplines. Why not? It adds so much flavor and goodness to the whole practice,” she says. “For me, it’s about how you can find an alignment between staying true to the tradition of yoga while being open and flexible to trying other avenues that can help you improve and evolve.”