Can Ashtanga Yoga Build Muscle?

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Ashtanga yoga is a physically demanding practice that is practiced all around the world. The Ashtanga yoga sequence moves the body through some challenging poses and so it is normal to wonder whether this practice can help build muscle.

Ashtanga yoga can help build muscle. Three studies found that Ashtanga yoga helped build strength in three parts of the body: core, upper body, and leg strength. Core and upper body strength are mainly developed through the many vinyasas and leg strength is mainly developed by the standing poses.

What is Ashtanga Yoga?

Ashtanga yoga is a physically demanding type of yoga. It follows a set sequence of poses that are linked by the breath. The primary series is the main sequence practiced by the majority of practitioners. It is made up of 4 distinct parts: sun salutations, standing, seating, and closing poses.

The breath works as a guide as we flow from pose to pose. On an inhale we open up and expand and on an exhale we fold. And then we stay in each pose for 5 breaths.

Ashtanga Yoga actually translates from Sanskrit to eight-limbed yoga, as was taught by sage Patanjali. However nowadays, Ashtanga yoga is more commonly associated with the physical yoga practice taught by Sri T Krishnamacharya to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India and that is now practiced around the world.

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So does Ashtanga yoga increase strength?

First off, let’s have a look at the actual practice and then we’ll look into the three studies I found that examined this very question.

The Ashtanga yoga sequence starts off with a series of sun salutations. These are practiced by beginners and the most advanced practitioners alike.

There are two sun salutations in the Ashtanga yoga system. Sun Salutation A and B. Both are practiced between 3 and 5 times and both help to bring heat to the body.

These sun salutations ask the body to move through some physically demanding postures such as plank pose, lower plank pose, and downward-facing dog. And so as you can see, from the very beginning of the practice, the body is asked to go through weight-bearing poses.

After the sun salutations, we move on to the standing postures and then the seated ones, where each pose is practiced for 5 breaths. Each standing pose is practiced after the previous one, however, each seated pose has a vinyasa that acts as a transition from pose to pose.

And so given this constant movement in the Ashtanga sequence from pose to pose, with a vinyasa placed in between, it becomes clear that Ashtanga yoga can help build muscle strength.

Anyone who has ever practiced Ashtanga yoga may have felt the strength-building benefits of the practice. However, in order to properly answer the question of whether Ashtanga yoga does actually help build muscle, I had a look at the research carried out.

I was able to find 3 studies in total that examined this very question. All studies were based in the US and all three studies found that Ashtanga yoga did help to increase strength.

Study 1 – Ashtanga helped increase core and upper body strength

One study carried out in the US in 2004 found that Ashtanga yoga may, in fact, be able to increase core and upper body strength.

In this study, 26 participants between the ages of 20 and 58 were subscribed to 6 weeks of yoga. 

They were split into two groups. One group practiced Hatha yoga while the other practiced Ashtanga yoga. Both groups did a 75-minute practice twice a week for 6 weeks.

The results showed that people in both groups showed an improvement in core and upper body strength. Perhaps not surprisingly, better results were seen with Ashtanga yoga, given that it is a more physically demanding practice.

Study 2 – Ashtanga helped increase core and upper body strength

In 2008 there was a second study on Ashtanga yoga which also found that Ashtanga yoga helped to increase core and upper body strength.

In this study, 7 college-aged females composed the yoga group, and five college-aged females composed the control group. Those in the yoga group took part in a 60-90 minute ashtanga yoga group twice a week for three months, while the control group practiced more traditional physical activities.

The results showed that those who practiced Ashtanga yoga showed a significant improvement in upper body muscular endurance and increased trunk flexibility. The authors also pointed out that there was also evidence supporting positive effects on cardiovascular fitness, perceived stress, and mental health.

Study 3 – Ashtanga helped increase leg press strength

One more recent study carried out in the US in 2012 found that Ashtanga yoga may, in fact, be able to increase leg press strength.

In this study, 34 female participants between the ages of 35 and 50 were subscribed to two 60 minute Ashtanga yoga classes for a total of 8 months. Something to point out is that these 60 minutes began with a 15-minute warm-up and ended with a 10-minute cooldown. So in essence, only 35 minutes of Ashtanga yoga was practiced.

The participants were split into two groups. One group practiced Ashtanga yoga while the control group didn’t practice yoga.

The results showed that those in the Ashtanga group showed an improvement in leg press strength. Perhaps we would have seen a higher improvement in muscle strength in other parts of the body if the actual Ashtanga yoga practice lasted longer than the 35 minutes used in this study.

How does Ashtanga yoga strengthen your body?

Some of the poses are physically demanding. They just are. And so if you go to any Ashtanga yoga beginner’s class, the teacher will guide the class in a way to make it suitable for all body types and all levels. And yet, given the nature of the practice, you may still find some things difficult.

The main reason we may be challenged in Ashtanga yoga is that we either are strong enough to hold poses, yet lack flexibility. Or we may be flexible and yet lack the strength to easily hold the poses.

One simple example is plank pose. This posture is practiced over and over again for the duration of the Ashtanga practice as we practice the vinyasas between each pose.

And for any complete beginner with weaker upper body strength, repeating this pose over and over again is exhausting!

And yet, give it time, give your body time to open up and understand the poses and you’ll see that what was once challenging is now just another pose.

And I can say that both from experience and I also have the research to back it up!

If you are interested in learning more about Ahstnag yoga, then you may like my article: The 23 Best Ashtanga Yoga Books

How often should you practice Ashtanga yoga?

Traditionally Ashtanga yoga is practiced 6 days a week. This more likely will seem like a lot to any beginner. And so it is recommended to take baby steps. So perhaps try practicing 2 or 3 times a week, and then with time, you will get a sense of whether you want to practice more or less.

The best thing to do is to tailor the practice to your life and do what works best for you.

Is Ashtanga Yoga good for beginners?

Ashtanga yoga is a good practice for beginners. In fact, most studios offer a beginner’s class, which tends to be in the form of a 1-hour class where the teacher guides the students along the set sequence of postures. There tends to be a lot of guidance, helping the students into each pose.

In beginner’s classes, there is generally a lot of explaining so as to help the students into each pose.

Another way for beginners to start learning Ashtanga is to start attending Mysore-style classes. This type of class is what sets Ashtanga yoga apart from any other form of yoga. It is a self-practice setting, where the teacher teaches the new student a small part of the primary sequence.

And then pose by pose, breath by breath, day by day, the student then evolves the practice.

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