The Mat and the Kettlebell: How Yoga Helps You Work Out Stronger and Smarter

Many of us are multi-sport athletes (even if only of the weekend variety). Me…I’m both a yogi and a gym enthusiast. I often detect some reluctance to try yoga from my friends who work out in the gym. I’ve heard the talk. “Yoga is too slow,” “it doesn’t challenge me enough,” or “it’s only for people who are flexible.” Or, sometimes my gym buddies will say that yoga is a good thing to do on a “day off” or when they want to take a break from lifting. I object! yoga-2

Yoga is not easy, not for only certain body types, and not a little sister to a workout. The mat and the kettlebell deserve equal respect. The combination of yoga practice and working out yields amazing benefits for overall physical and mental wellbeing. Yoga has helped me work out smarter and achieve more in the gym than I ever believed I could. Conversely, strength training and conditioning have allowed me to approach my yoga practice with much more confidence and to find power for poses I otherwise would never attempt.

In this blog post, I’ll focus on how a regular yoga practice will help you work out stronger and smarter. I’ll tell you about the five most important things I’ve learned from my yoga practice that I bring with me every time I walk through the gym door.

1. Move from a Stable Foundation

 The first consideration in any yoga pose (or asana) is the foundation. A standing pose begins from the feet, with a focus first on balance between right and left feet, and then the balance within each foot (right and left sides, toes and heels). A lunging or squatting yoga pose draws attention to the relationship between the midline of the thigh, knee, and second toe and to the stacking of the knee over the ankle. In a pose such as down dog or plank, a yogi thinks about the spread of the fingers and the distribution of weight on the thumb and pinkie side of the hands, the lift of the wrists and the arms, the broadness of the shoulder girdle, the separation of shoulders and neck, the lift of the belly, the lengthening of the thighs…I could go on, but you get the picture. Of course, a good trainer also teaches you to move from a stable foundation, but trainers don’t have the luxury that the slower movements in yoga give to consider where it all begins. As a consequence of a regular yoga practice, your body becomes a bit obsessive about

Of course, a good trainer also teaches you to move from a stable foundation, but trainers don’t have the luxury that the slower movements in yoga give to consider where it all begins. As a consequence of a regular yoga practice, your body becomes a bit obsessive about foundations, and you’ll carry that knowledge with you (not just to the gym, but also to sitting in your office or standing in a grocery line). That stable foundation will help you to lift more weight and move more efficiently. On the other hand, perhaps you’ll notice that your body is not sufficiently stable as you swing a kettlebell or press a weight overhead. In that case, you have learned equally valuable lessons– stop and adjust your foundation before you risk injury.

2. Engage Your Core

Yogis speak of what might seem like a mysterious place in the body from which all movement and energy emanates. This is the mula bandha, or the root lock, which begins at the very base of the pelvic floor. I’m pretty sure that the mula bandha is part of the foundation in 99% of the poses and transitions between them. Yogis learn to lift their belly up and in from the very lowest and deepest core muscles and to keep that lift and lock engaged for as long as possible. They practice using the mula bandha (and other locks, or bandhas) in breathing exercises, during postures that focus specifically on the core, and in nearly each and every other posture in a yoga sequence.

It’s the mula bandha that helps yogis float up into handstands or balance on their arms. Sit-ups, hollow holds, and push-ups are great, but they don’t teach you to use your core in quite the same way that yoga does. Strengthening and knowing how to use those deep core muscles will help you with so many aspects of your workout—from planks to overhead presses to box jumps. And, as you probably realize, a strong core is essential for daily health and wellness–improving various bodily functions, maintaining balance, and enhancing functional movement (even improving your sex life).2016-06-29-12-24-15

3. Use Your Subtle Muscles

Yoga seeks balance in all things, and this includes balance while moving or at rest. One way yogis find physical balance in their practice is by making less use of the largest and most often-used muscles in the body while making more use of the smaller and typically more neglected muscles–sometimes called the “subtle muscles.” For example, when your trainer says, “squeeze your butt,” you’re primarily contracting the gluteus maximus—the largest and one of the strongest muscles in your body. But you also have a gluteus medius and a gluteus minimus.

In yoga, you’ll learn to give the maximus a little break so the medius and minimus can join the “squeeze your butt” party. The same goes for the major muscle groups in the shoulders, arms, legs, and pelvis. Yoga helps you learn to use all the relevant muscles in support of one another. Engaging the less often used muscles to enhance balance or movement, rather than relying only on the strongest ones, is especially helpful in compensating for the loss of muscle mass as we age.

4. Move with the Breath

 Every movement in a yoga practice is synced to the breath. Usually, an inhale lifts, lengthens, and expands the body, whereas an exhale softens and deepens the body into a pose. Yogis learn to slow their breath, helping to calm a racing heart or focus a scattered mind. They practice making inhales and exhales of equal duration. They develop the habit of breathing through the nose rather than the mouth, preserving energy and helping maintain hydration.

Although I find that some movements in my workouts–lifts, in particular–use a different breath pattern than yoga, in general, there’s a direct translation between yogic breathing and breathing in a workout. Slowing the breath helps you to find a fuller range of motion in each exercise. Awareness of the breath assists you in noticing what is happening in your body and mind. And, you’re more likely to find 25 wall ball shots or 20 burpees less daunting if you focus on taking them “one breath at a time.”

5. Pay Attention to Your Body

All of the above cultivate an acute awareness of your body—its stability, alignment, specific muscles, and breath. Like me, you may find that your experience with yoga makes you much more interested in working out. I’m not longer constantly clock watching or longing to get it over and done. My focus has shifted to the workout as it unfolds. I’m more interested and curious about the details of exercises and my body within them. What’s going on with my inner ankle and thigh in a single leg deadlift? Why can’t I make better use of my right lat in a pull up? Why do I roll more to the left side than to the right when I do a plank reach? What muscles do I need to better engage to be safer, more efficient, and to counteract asymmetries? 11040604_10206693687523843_6976430650113609877_o

I also concentrate on how to breathe more efficiently, especially during cardio segments of the workout. How can I improve my breathing while I row so I can take longer pulls? How can I slow my breath in a sled push so I don’t end with that scary feeling that my heart will pop out of my chest? When you are attentive to your body, a knowledgeable trainer and a skilled yoga teacher become even more valuable. Your own awareness makes them better able to help and correct you—improving your workout and enhancing your practice.

Perhaps the biggest benefit that yoga has brought to my workouts, though, is this: I listen to and respect my body. I take responsibility for my workout or for my yoga practice. I have become much more aware of a potential injury that may be creeping up on me, and I back off or change something. I do get aches and pains, but I now think of them as lessons that I need to learn. What did I do to make that knee hurt? What do I need to do differently next time? My workouts have become more sustainable because of my yoga practice, and vice versa. I am convinced that, with some continued good fortune, age will not put place severe limitations on my body and what I can do with it.

If you haven’t already, I hope you will seriously consider taking up a regular yoga practice. Don’t limit yourself to the choice of working out or practicing yoga: find a way to fit some of both into your schedule. Just as you have sought a knowledgeable trainer, insist on a well-trained yoga teacher who can help you learn the above. Then, mindfully take what you have learned on your mat and apply it to your workout. You’ll be surprised at what happens.

Cindy Okolo has taught yoga for five years.  She is a 500-hour RYT who has trained with Hilaire Lockwood at Hilltop Yoga in Lansing, where she teaches classes.  She is also a Curvy Yoga certified teacher. Cindy trains at State of Fitness and teaches yoga at the Jackson National State of Fitness campus. You can find her on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/ArmBalancesAfter50/.


Are you someone that currently practices Yoga but also wants to learn how to get stronger to help your Yoga practice? We can help!
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