Yoga is often seen as a form of exercise that involves a lot of stretching. While, yes, this is true, yoga can also be used as a vigorous muscle toning and strengthening exercise. The beauty of yoga is the combination of the two: the perfect balance between lengthening and toning of the body. Thus why the lean and defined “yoga body” is so desired. There is no substitute to well-rounded physical exercise and there is no shortcut to a “perfect” body. However, there are particular yoga poses that you can use as a “cheat sheet” to target particular muscle groups and lengthen others to work toward creating long, lean, and toned muscles. Practice the following yoga poses consistently and watch your body (and even your mind during the process) transform.
10 Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
This pose strengthens and tones the legs, butt, abs, shoulders, and arms simultaneously. Start standing with your feet together and your big toes touching. Set a strong foundation into the feet pressing them firmly against the floor. Work the action of squeezing the legs into the mid-line of the body. On an exhale bend deeply into the knees allowing your fingertips to graze the floor. As you inhale, keep the knees bent deeply as you sweep your arms up toward the sky. Allow your arms to be about shoulder-width apart and soften your shoulders away from your ears. Try to keep your weight leaning back into the heels of your feet and your knees bent deeply toward the floor. Draw the pit of your belly in toward the spine activating your deepest abdominal muscles and tune in with your breath. Hold for as long as you’d like and, when you’ve finished, relax your torso forward over the legs into a simple forward fold. Let the weight of the spine hang heavy toward the floor as you surrender and release.
9 Anjaneyasana (High Lunge)
Once again this posture strengthens and tones the legs, butt, abs, shoulders, and arms as well as stretches and lengthens into the legs. Start in a forward fold with your knees bent as deeply as you need to be able to plant your palms flat against the mat. Take a huge step back with your right foot taking up at least 80% of the mat between the legs. Kick and extend hard through the right heel as if your foot is pressing against a wall. Press down firmly into the left heel to lift the spine up straight and sweep and extend your arms over your head. Again, take the arms to be about shoulder-width apart and relax your shoulders away from your ears. Keep kicking back into the right heel and straighten the right leg completely, lifting your thighbone up away from the floor. Try to bend the left knee deeply being cautious to keep the knee directly stacked over the ankle and never moving in front of the ankle. Relax your tailbone toward the floor and again draw the bellybutton and the lower ribs toward the spine awakening your core. Try to straighten the spine as much as possible while bending the front knee toward a perfect ninety-degree angle. Soften your breath and hold for as long as you’d like before switching to the opposite leg.
8 Purvottanasana (Reverse Plank)
This pose lengthens the shoulders and the chest while strengthening the arms, legs, butt, and abs. Start seated on the floor with your legs outstretched forward in front of you. Flex the feet hard and squeeze your legs into the mid-line. Place your hands about six inches behind your hips with your fingers pointing toward your toes. Roll your shoulders down your back and squeeze your shoulder blades toward each other to puff your chest up toward the sky. Engage the abdominals and press equally against your hands and your feet to lift your hips high up off the floor. Keep expanding the chest and lifting the hips high and, if it feels okay with your neck, you can relax your head back. Try to create a straight line through the body, the perfect reverse to a plank position. Hold for as long as you would like before relaxing back down to the floor. If this pose causes any pain in the lower back, simply bend into your knees and place your feet flat against the mat practicing a reverse tabletop position instead.
7 Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III)
This challenging balance posture lengthens and strengthens throughout the whole body. Start standing with the feet together. Look in front of you and focus your eyes on one still spot that is about in line with your hips. Try to keep your gaze focused the whole time to help keep your balance steady. Draw your palms to meet at your heart and start to shift your weight into your right leg. Rise to the ball of your left foot and set a strong, steady foundation in the right leg. When you feel balanced, lift your left foot off the floor and flex your ankle hard. Slowly begin to kick and extend that leg straight back behind you while you simultaneously draw your torso parallel to the floor trying to create a T shape in the body. Firmly engage your abdominals and lengthen and extend through the whole spine. If you like, you can lengthen and reach your arms straight forward in front of you. Try your best to keep your hips level and squared to the floor. Think about relaxing the left hip down to align it with your right. Kick back through your leg with as much energy as you reach forward with your arms. Allow those energies to balance and counter each other. Try your best to keep your standing leg as straight and strong as possible. Hold for a few long, deep breaths and, when you’re ready, switch to the opposite side.
6 Paripurna Navasana (Boat Pose)
This posture strongly works the abdominals and the muscles of the back, legs, hips, and arms. Start seated on the floor and bend into your knees placing your feet flat against the mat. Take a hold behind your knees and press down into your sit bones to lift and lengthen your spine toward the ceiling. Roll your shoulders down the back and very subtly draw the shoulder blades toward each other. Expand your chest toward your thighs. Flex both feet hard and squeeze your legs into the mid-line. Keeping the spine as straight as possible, recruit your abdominals to lift both legs off the floor drawing your shins parallel to the mat. You can stay holding behind the knees or you can release your hands extending them forward beside the legs. You can, again, stay here or maybe work toward straightening and extending the legs toward the sky creating a V shape in the body. Lengthen the spine and engage the core firmly. Try to avoid dumping weight into your lower back. Rest when you need rather than compromising the form of your posture. Hold for as long as your breath can remain consistent and then soften and relax back down.
5 Adho Mukha Svanasana (Down Dog)
This all-encompassing posture simultaneously lengthens and strengthens the legs, back, abs, shoulders, neck, and arms. Start on all fours in a tabletop position, aligning your shoulders over your wrists and your hips over your knees. Draw the bellybutton in toward your spine and up toward your rib cage activating the whole core. Tuck all ten toes underneath and lift your hips up toward the ceiling. Try to make the shape of an upside down V with the body. Have your hands shoulder-width apart and spread your fingers wide and press equal weight across all four corners of your palms. Reach and extend your fingertips forward in space and then counter this action relaxing your shoulders away from your ears. Try to broaden the muscles of the upper back as you extend your sit bones up high toward the ceiling. Your knees can either be bent or straight here as you work to relax your heels toward the floor (they don’t have to touch, just lengthen them down). Press your thighbones toward the back of your mat and soften your chest toward your thighs. Try to keep the arms as straight as possible and evenly distribute your weight between your hands and your feet. Keep the belly engaged throughout and hold for as long as you can retain a slow, steady rhythm of breath.
4 Adho Mukha Dandasana (Plank Pose)
This classic posture found in many different styles of exercise is an excellent full body strengthener with particular focus on the arms, shoulders, abdominals, and legs. Start in a down dog and inhale to roll your weight forward aligning your shoulders directly over your wrists. Actively press the floor away with your palms resisting gravity. Kick back hard through your heels with your feet hip-distance apart and lift your thighbones away from the floor. Tuck your tailbone toward your feet and actively draw in on the belly. Try to make a straight line from the top of your head straight down to your heels. You can modify this position as you build strength, by relaxing your knees toward the floor, working all of the same actions to build up the body toward reaching the full pose. You can also modify this position by taking it on your forearms to target different arm, shoulder, and core muscles.
3 Chaturanga Dandasana (Low Plank)
Very similar to plank position, this low plank or push-up position works the whole body, particularly focusing on the arms, shoulders, upper back, and core. Start in a plank position and look forward. Start to roll your weight even further forward until your shoulders move past the alignment of your wrists and move forward on the tips of your toes. From here, slowly start to bend into your elbows pointing them straight back behind you as you squeeze them in against your ribs. Lower down halfway to the floor trying to create a perfect ninety-degree angle between the upper arms and the forearms. Be cautious not to allow your shoulder joint to dip below the elbow joint. Same as in plank pose, try to create a straight line from the top of your head down through to your heels. From here you can either slowly release all the way to the floor, you can actively press the floor away from you rising all the way back up to a plank, or you can roll over your toes and sweep your chest through the arms as they straighten and squeeze the shoulder blades toward each other opening the heart in an upward facing dog. Similar to plank pose, you can practice chaturanga with your knees on the mat as you start to build your strength.
2 Vasisthasana (Side Plank)
This variation of a straight plank works deep into the arms, shoulders, and obliques while the full version of the posture also works to lengthen and extend the hamstrings. Start in a high plank position with your feet touching at the back of the mat. Shift your weight toward your right hand and roll onto the pinky side of your right foot. You can either stack the left foot directly on top of the right or you can stagger the feet rolling onto the big toe side of the left foot and placing it beside the right. Very actively press the floor away with your feet and your right hand as you start to spiral and twist your chest and your left arm up toward the sky. Try to lift your hips as high as you can toward the ceiling activating into your side abdominals, or obliques. If you have the strength and flexibility to take the full variation, you can begin to lift your left foot up high toward the sky taking a yogi toe lock (your first two fingers and thumb) and wrapping them around the big toe. From here, kick the leg up away from your body still pressing the floor away from you below. Hold for as long as you would like before switching to the other side.
1 Bakasana (Crow Pose)
This super fun and challenging arm balance fully utilizes the arms, core, back, and hips to find lift off and flight in this position. Start in a simple forward fold leaning over the legs. Bend the knees as deeply as you need to plant your palms flat against the mat shoulder-width apart. Spread your fingers wide and press equally across all corners of your palms. Now, bend the knees deeply and lift your hips high toward the ceiling until your whole back rounds. Bend into the elbows creating a “shelf” in the arms and draw your knees as high up on that arm shelf as you can reach (ideally the knees will fall right into the crevice of your armpits). Squeeze the knees in toward the mid-line of your body. Activate into your core and keep your hips held high with the back fully rounded. Draw the belly in and start to lean your weight forward into your hands. Keep extending the weight forward until there is a transfer of weight and you’ll notice the legs become light. Press the floor away with your hands and hug the heels in close toward your seat keeping the hips held high, the back rounded and the abs firmly engaged. As you grow stronger, you can work toward straightening into the arms. Hold for as long as feels comfortable before surrendering and relaxing back down.