Many of my students ask me the same question, “What is more important, strength or flexibility?” My answer is always, “Both!” A good yoga practice will always lead you back to balance. Some people come to yoga to stretch and improve flexibility, while others come to yoga for strength and what they might call a workout. Yoga practice meets you where you are physically and mentally and helps guide you to the center. Many students who are strong, enjoy jumping around and practicing postures like headstands and arm balances while avoiding postures like back bending or hip openers, which they might struggle with. Students who are hyper-mobile love to twist themselves up and hang around in forward bends that add even more space to their hips and hamstrings and might avoid strengthening poses, which are a challenge for their loose joints. In all cases, students need to work on the opposite actions they excel in.
In my own early yoga practice I loved to practice backbends. They came so easily to me. I had very mobile shoulders and a hyper-mobile lower back. But without the strength in my shoulders, core and front line to counter the backward movements I became injured on more than one occasion. When I changed my practice and started to incorporate specific strengthening postures, I created balance in my movements — on and off my yoga mat — and I became injury free.
Strength and flexibility are necessary for a healthy body. Strength creates stability in the spinal column and the joints of our body. Muscle mass improves bone’s density and burns calories. Muscle is what moves us through space by moving our skeleton around. Flexibility allows for fluid motion, lubricates joints and moves fluids through the body. To create movement muscles contract and release in an orchestrated manor. As an example: When I take a step forward the muscles on the front of my thigh and hip contract to pull my leg forward. At the same time the muscles in the back of my thigh and butt cheek release to allow that action to happen. The opposite actions occur to bring the leg behind me. These combined movements forward and back allow me to walk. At the same time, other muscles in the torso and hips are holding steady to keep you stable and upright as you move.
If muscles are overly strong without flexibility, simple actions like bending over and even walking can be restrictive or painful. When muscles are short they put undue strain on the joints during motion. Muscle fiber tears and tendon or ligament damage can occur in persons who do not create flexibility in their muscle fibers as they increase strength. Flexibility is a very important part of joint and muscle integrity. To obtain a healthy range of motion in the joints, muscles need to be able to lengthen and relax when the opposing muscles are contracting to move the bones in the direction we want to go. However, if the muscles are too flexible and a joint becomes hyper-mobile this too will often lead to joint injury. If a joint is constantly put past its full range of motion it can lead to problems such as tendonitis, joint inflammation and ligament tears. An unbalanced yoga practice that focuses on too much strength or flexibility can cause or increase already existing muscle imbalances in the body and cause pain and or injury.
Yoga postures when combined correctly are designed to create a balance between strength and flexibility of muscles, which creates full mobility of the body. While balance is created in the body, it is also created in the mind and energy body. The balance in the mind and energy body is called sukha (ease) and sthira (effort) in the yoga tradition. When we find balance in our physical and mental practices we are always in a state of equal effort and ease. The effort is felt in the physical body action and the mind’s focus to stay present. The ease is experienced in the ability to find the breath and move to and away from the edges without causing strain and unnecessary tension in the mind and body. When we find this balance in the body, mind and breath, everything flows freely with ease. Strength and flexibility work together to move you freely through space and within your own mind and heart.