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Get Stronger (and Smarter) During Yoga With 6 Expert Tips

Jul 17 2014 - 3:08am

If you're a yoga regular, you know that sometimes even one tiny instruction can totally change your relationship with a yoga pose. All these tips from world-renowned yogis have left me having an "Aha!" moment on my mat. You too may find your yoga practice transformed after reading through this advice.

Source: Corbis Images [1]

Do the "Jackie Chan"

The secret to stronger and steadier postures where you're on your hands comes from deep within the serratus anterior [2]. This muscle connects the front ribs to the shoulder blades, and when it's engaged, your shoulders are in a much safer and stronger position. It can be tricky to learn how to do this, so here's where yogi extraordinaire Kathryn Budig's [3] "Jackie Chan" tip comes in to help.

Kathryn says if you mimic Jackie Chan's kung-fu stance [4] — "elbows bent, biceps tight to the body, forearms out" — you'll feel the serratus anterior engage. When you engage this muscle, it protects your shoulders and keeps your upper body stable, strong, and safe.

Upward Dog Should Feel Like a Backbend

Although you might not recognize it, Upward Facing Dog [5] actually acts as a backbend. Schuyler Grant of Kula Yoga [6] explains that the idea behind Cobra and Up Dog is to "maintain stability in your lower abdomen and lengthen your lower back." When you draw attention to your belly and back, you'll find that bringing the bend to your upper back comes much more naturally.

People tend to hang out in Upward Facing Dog and focus on pushing up through their arms. Underutilizing your legs, chest, and shoulder muscles in Upward Dog is a big mistake, since those are what should be working in the pose. Schuyler gives a helpful tip to visualize the pose once you're moving into it: "Always feel like you're pulling your chest forward and through, not pushing it up away from the floor." Once you make this shift in your practice, you'll find more flexibility (and less tension) between your shoulder blades and in your chest.

Source: Laughing River Yoga [7]

Don't Be Afraid of Props

Bali, Indonesia-based yogi Les Leventhal [8] is a huge fan of props and wishes he saw more students grab them at the start of class! While yoga students may feel self-conscious about looking "amateur" during their practice, yoga props like blocks, blankets, and straps can "teach students how to really engage muscles, especially in the legs." Grab a few [9] before your next studio session.

Build Every Pose From the Ground Up

NYC yogi Sadie Nardini [10] sees one common misalignment in class: people pointing the front of their pelvis forward and overarching their low back. When people power into poses from their low-back body, Sadie says it can cause a ton of back pain, shoulder and neck tension, and joint compression, putting you in a tight spot that can lead to injury. But tucking in your tailbone alone won't fix this pesky problem.

According to Sadie, students should think of building each and every pose from the ground up, deep from your core muscles [11]. "It's a revolutionary experience to do your poses in the most optimized way," says Sadie.

Don't Just Push, Pull Too!

NYC-based yogi Kristin McGee [12] sees many students focused on the action of strenuous pushing in yoga with very little pulling in the mix. For example, in Chaturanga [13], you should make the effort to pull your shoulder blades together on your back rather than just pushing the floor away. The same goes for Downward Dog; as you push away the floor with your hands and feet, you should also feel like you're drawing up (or pulling in) energy from the floor while engaging your entire body. This little tip will definitely shift your perspective with at least one pose.

Source: Louisa Larson Photography [14]

Consistency Is Key

While Yoga Shanti [15] studio founders Colleen Saidman and Rodney Yee agree that any amount of yoga is beneficial, to really see results, Colleen says a shorter, easier, consistent practice will help you reap yoga's benefits faster: "If you practice for 20 minutes, five days a week, you're going to see physical, emotional, psychological results much quicker than going at it really hard once a week." It's a great reminder to see what fits into your schedule and make room for your personal practice's growth.

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