Let’s Get Physical!

Let’s Get Physical!

Yoga Therapy Programming for Strength: Integrating western science & yogic physiology to meet your clients strength based needs

This article integrates biomedical science on the Panca – Kosha model of yogic physiology to explore how to develop physical strength in your own or your client’s yoga practice.


Co written by The Living Yoga Therapy team, Garrett Lane (Physiotherapist & Yoga Teacher), Chandrika Gibson ND (Yoga Therapist) and Jean Byrne PhD. Pease visit the webiste for upcoming trainings in Perth, Singapore & Hong Kong.

As you move through your journey as a Yoga Therapist it is inevitable that a student will approach you with the goal of becoming stronger. You may even be referred to by another health professional regarding ‘improvements in strength’ for anything from secondary osteoporosis prevention to pre & post surgery rehabilitation. But before you start running your student through a power vinyasa sequence filled with utkatasanachaturanga andvirhabhadrasana it is important to understand both what western science and yogic physiology have to contribute to the subject in order to design an integrated evidence-based, holistic yoga therapy practice for your students.

This article focuses on physical strength, or the bodily layer of consciousness, known in yogic physiology as annamaya kosha. As yoga therapists it is important we not only have a biomedical understanding of health, but also be able to integrate this understanding into ourbiopsychosocialspiritual view of existence fostered through the philosophy of yoga and thepancha kosha model (drawn from Vedantic philosophy).

In brief, koshas are the ‘layers’ or ‘sheaths’ of the interconnected physical, mental and spiritual body. The five sheaths are interwoven and serve as a map of our yoga journey towards our innate state of bliss which is considered to be our true nature (anandamaya kosha). The physical body is often denied in many spiritual traditions as being unimportant. However if we understand the koshas as a certain type of journey we go on as we delve deeper into yoga, then that journey must have a starting point. In the pancha kosha model that point is the physical body – annamaya koshaThus the focus in this article on neuromusculoskeletal strength training relates purely to this kosha, even while it cannot be separated from the rest of the layers of being.



However, there are many different types of ‘strength’ that we as Yoga Therapists can address. It is essential to seek clarification of what exactly our clients mean by strength.

Do they wish to

Look stronger?

Feel stronger?

Increase their endurance?

Be more courageous?

Lead a more disciplined life?

Strengthen a group of muscles their yoga teacher or other individual told them is important for a particular pose, pain prevention etc. etc.?

Just as the understandings of what strength means to an individual vary greatly, so too will our treatment planning for that client.
For example and as mentioned the physical aspects of strength relate to the annamaya kosha(the physical systems of the body, often translated as ‘food sheath’). Conversely, the components of strength which include the mental qualities of the individual, such as the strength to be disciplined in spiritual life, or the strength to be courageous, may involve working with thevijnanamaya kosha (moral discernment or the ‘wisdom sheath’). As the practitioner continues to mature and their practice develops these levels will start to integrate and the strength and clarity within one kosha will foster development in another.

So while we may be starting with the physical body in this article, it is important to recognize that with any type of strength we may refer to, we start with a body. Courageousness, discipline, mental strength of any form is all realized while we are in physical form. This developing a strong body is a helpful (though not necessarily required) aspect of developing other forms of strength.

Once we have discerned the type of strength that is important to our client to cultivate we seek to create a program, which will help them to achieve that. We also can hope that our clients in working with annamaya kosha may discover a deeper understanding of strength as embracing their whole being.


For example a client who has felt vulnerable to attack by perceived dangers or enemies, may seek to bulk up physically. Initially presenting with a straightforward focus on the annamaya kosha. However through our sessions together we may discover that indeed other types of strength are required for the student to feel less vulnerable. It could be that for this client they might then move from a manipura chakra or adrenally driven response to an anahata chakra or self-actualised response to their situation. We always program with our clients goals in mind, but with the ability to integrate new concepts into our programming so that may find more holistic solutions to aid their healing.


Working with the Physical Body: Annamaya Kosha.

Strength training, also known as resistance training, has been shown to have a number of health benefits including weight loss (langhana – decreasing the kapha dosha influence), increase in skeletal muscle strength (Brahmana – the building up of tissues), joint protection, reduction of depressive symptoms (Conn. 2010), chronic disease prevention and primary(Warburtion, et al. 2006) and secondary osteoporosis prevention (Liu-Ambrose, et al. 2004) just to name a few.

But what exactly is strength/resistance training?


Strength training entails providing a resistance to a particular muscular contraction, which results in an increase in the anaerobic endurance, strength and/or size of that particular skeletal muscle. The initial gains in strength are achieved through an increase in the efficiency of the nervous system’s ability to stimulate muscular contraction. This is then followed by adaptation in the actual muscle fibers, which undergo micro-trauma in response to the increased load and adapt accordingly. As a result of this micro-trauma it is common for students to experience delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS, which is an ache or soreness 24 to 72 hours after the exercise. Students should be warned of this possibility and its underlying mechanism so that any concern regarding possible injury is reduced. If these symptoms are consistently present post practice they may indicate excessive resistance/over training. If the student’s practice is informed by the principles of ahimsa (non-harm) and tapas (discipline) in balance, this will facilitate right effort for that individual and minimise the risk of these secondary consequences.

Integral to strength training is repetition. Repetition is moving through the entire form of the exercise whilst meeting and then moving away from its complete muscular resistance. Common examples yoga teachers use include: holding Virabhadrasana for 5 breaths or moving fromtadasana to utkatasana and holding for 3 breaths.


Repetitions are performed a set number of times. This means they are performed with a rest in-between. In yoga we complete a set when we, for example, hold virabhadrasana for 5 breaths x 5.These static sets may also be linked as part of a vinyasa.

In order to develop strength we need to figure out our/our students Repetitive Maximum (RM).This is the number of repetitions required to achieve muscular fatigue. For example a student might be able to perform a 3 Breath utkatasana and returning to tadasana’ 6 times before they can not perform any more (due to fatigue of the quadriceps/thigh). Thus they have a 6RM(Repetitive Maximum) for that particular asana/vinyasa/exercise. Why is it important to know this? Because as Yoga Therapists we want to be able to measure if our clients strength is actually increasing! This allows us to actually measure their progress in concrete terms.
The How – To of Increasing Strength 
Below we outline what we see to be the key principles for working with annamaya kosha and increasing physical strength

While we focus primarily on the physical aspects pertinent to strength training it is important to recognize that this is simply one aspect in the programming that we would include for these clients. Pranayama, mindfulness, mudrabandhadrishti , bhavana and lifestyle choices will also be integral to the development of physical strength. Further our clients will receive the benefits of practicing yoga beyond simply asana.


  1. Frequency & Rest
    1. For students that are focusing on strength oriented asana practice for the first time; commence with a practice of twice per week.
    2. After a period of three weeks the student can progress to three-four times per week.
      1. 48 hours of rest should be provided between sessions.
      2. This rest may include a focus on a more restorative/yin practice, a different part of the body or other yogic practices such as pranayama, mindfulness or yoga nidra.
      3. Overtraining or excessive strength practice may lead to negative consequences such as lethargy and reduced immunity.
      4. Excessive focus on the annamaya koshaby the practitioner can be mistaken for yoga. This may result in the practitioner misunderstanding (avidya) or misidentifying the sense of self (ahamkara). Further it is to be remembered in some yoga traditions 6 day a week practice is the norm (such as Ashtanga Vinyāsa ). The goal of a yogi and the goal of building strength through yoga are different, thus the way we practice yoga is different.
      5. Repetitions & Sets & Rest Between
        1. For new students
          1. 1 x Set & 8 RM(Repetitive Maximum) is recommended.

e.g. Flowing from trikonasana to virabhadrasana on the right side and holding for a count of 3 breaths after 8 repetitions the student is fatigued through the quadriceps/thigh and cannot perform any further.However, this of course, is not practiced in isolation! In order for a student to even develop this endurance correct breathing viapranayama must be taught.

  1. After three weeks or some previous experience
    1. Progress to 2-3 x Sets with 8 to 12 RM
    2. Once the student can comfortably perform the required repetitions and is no longer fatiguing then the principles of progressive overloaddescribed below should be applied.
  2. 1-2 minute restis recommended between these sets of the exercise.
    1. This may include a focus on a more restorative/yin practice, a different part of the body or other yogic practices such as pranayama, mindfulness or yoga nidra.

e.g. ‘Flowing from trikonasana to virabhadrasana on the right side and holding for a count of 3 breaths for 8 repetitions.’The student then flows through a vinyasa including hip opening leg lifts from adho mukha svanasana and 10 breath hold in eka pada rajakapotasana before returning to the second set.

  1. Progressive Overload
    1. Increasing the load or level of resistance is required to ensure that the student is achieving the correct repetitive maximum for strength gains.
      1. Increase the resistance
      2. Increase the duration of hold
      3. Increase the volume (number of asanaswhich focus on that muscle group)
      4. Increase the frequency (days per week/number of sets)

E.gA student is able to perform a chaturanga 1 second hold to plank transition with assistance of the knees over 30 times (>30RM) without fatigue – then the resistance in this exercise must be increased to reduce the RM otherwise this will be increasing the individual endurance rather than strength. This could be achieved through

  1. Removing the assistance of the knees
  2. Holding chaturangafor an increased period of time. E.g. 5 seconds
  3. Slowing the transition from plank to chaturanga
  4. Integrating the transition into a greater number of sessions per week. In accordance with the principle of 48 hours rest.
  5. Integration into a Yogic Lifestyle
  6. Whilst this is the current evidence based understanding to facilitate the fastest gains in physical strength without risking injury. It is important that the practice you provide does not compromise on the yogic principles or the yogic lifestyle of that individual practitioner.
    Some areas to consider may include

    1. A balance between ahimsaand tapas.
    2. A 6 day a week Ashtanga view of tapas. In this lineage, practice is imbued with the principles of bhakti and parampara.
    3. Not providing a practice which focuses solely on any one component of yoga – e.g.asanawithout other limbs integrated.
    4. Consideration of the individual doshadominance will also help direct the type of strength practice. E.g.
      1. Vatatypes should slow transitions and hold longer. Developing muscular strength will be helpful for them.
      2. Kaphatypes may find slow exercises appealing however they may need to increase agni and should increase speed and repetitions.
      3. Pittatypes may be attracted to strength focused asana and should be directed to use the inner fire for sadhana. It would also be important to provide inversions and cooling pranayamas at the end of practice to avoid any imbalance in pitta dosha.


When creating an asana practice for neuromuscular strength we can alter the sets & repetitions to more specifically target muscle power, strength & power, strength & size or endurancewe will look at this more specifically in further workshops and articles. For the most even and functional gains in anaerobic endurance, strength and muscle size a practice that involves fatigue at an 8-12RM is most appropriate. However again this can not compromise on the principles of yoga and yogic lifestyle.

Beyond the Neuromuscular


A biopsychosocial understanding of strength must also extend to observing the students diet and lifestyle habits. As we have discussed previously it is important that the individual be aware of the stressors and blissors in their lifestyle. As resistance training on a cellular level is a stressor which then requires a period of recovery for normal strength gains, it is important that the individual has appropriate time for rest and observes the importance of savasana as an opportunity to calm the body from this primarily rajasic state.

It is common for students to have the misconception that it is their lack of neuromuscular strength holding them back from a particular asana. As Yoga Therapists we must be aware of other factors that may be at play for example; fear of the asana or attempting to push through the asana or movement when what is required is a relaxing or softening of the body to find the subtlety of movement.

A common situation in practice is those students who feel they lack the strength for arm balances or other inverted postures.

E.g. The neuromuscular strength of the arms required for bakasana or crow pose is rarely the primary factor in preventing students from completing the posture. However many students will not attempt the posture because of their perceived lack of strength.

This usually relates to the fear of the consequence of not having enough strength and falling face first to mat. To test the student’s strength with the posture the teacher may utilize a variety of pillows or an assisting adjustment of the hips to see if this enables the student to achieve the posture. This simple assistance can demonstrate to the individual that they do have the strength to achieve the final posture but may not yet have the control of the balance point or are fearful of the consequences of fatiguing. Further we may highlight to our students the importance of yogic teachings such as those found in the Bhagavad Gita. To practice yoga while we undertake yoga asana is to put in effort, while renouncing the fruits of that effort. Thus whether we can or cannot execute an asana is, in terms of yogic philosophy, quite irrelevant!

In Conclusion

It is clear that becoming stronger may take on a variety of different meanings depending on the individual involved. This will in turn influence how you work with that student and what sort of space and practice you collaboratively create.

Consider These 4 Key Principles

  • Correct Frequency & Rest
  • Repetition, Sets & Rest Between
  • Progressive Overload
  • Integration into a Yogic Lifestyle

These principles will help to provide the evidence-based framework for creating a neuromuscular strength component to your Yoga Therapy Management Plan, whilst providing the space for challenging the other components of strength that exist in the practice of yoga.

If you would like to learn more about;

  • Using strength training principles for particular neuromusculoskeletal conditions
  • How to target specific muscle groups with an asana practice
  • Integrating western anatomy and yogic physiology or
  • Commencing or furthering your training as a Yoga Therapist

Make sure you check out our website www.livingyogatherapy.com for more information and resources.

Follow this link to an example Upper Limb strengthening asana sequence for a healthy adult student.


Warburtion E. R. D, Nicol C. D, Bredin S. D. S, 2006. Health Benefits of Physical Activity: the evidence Canadian Medical Assocation Journal


Liu-Ambrose TY, Khan KM, Eng JJ, et al. Both resistance and agility training in- 
crease cortical bone density in 75- to 85-year-old women with low bone mass: a 6- 
month randomized controlled trial. J Clin Densitom 2004;7:390-8.

Conn, Vicki S. Depressive Symptom Ouctomes of Physical Activity Interventions: Meta-analysis Findings. Annals of Behavioral Medicine May 2010; 39:2:128-138


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