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5 Yoga Poses That Build Strength and Flexibility

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There’s an inside joke among yoga teachers that if we had a nickel for every time someone told us that they have never tried yoga because they aren’t flexible enough, we would be rich. Kidding aside, the fact that so many people make this remark reaffirms that there is a common misconception that yoga is all about intimidating poses that ask you to bend your body in anatomy-defying ways.

However, according to the classical definition of asana, which is the physical practice of yoga, flexibility is only half the story. The seminal yogic text, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjli, defines asana as sthira sukha asanam, a steady and comfortable seat. This means that each yoga pose should contain the seemingly opposing qualities of being expansive and contracted, flexible and strong, fluid yet structured.

Finding this balance in each posture isn’t a fixed point but rather a continuum, one that we want to try not to let lean too far toward either end. For example, having too much sukha, or expansion, could take the form of either lack of muscular engagement or, for those who are hypermobile, going past a safe end range of flexibility. Too much sthira, or contraction, could appear as “muscling” through poses, overexerting oneself, and, quite often, holding the breath as a result.

The intention isn’t to achieve a equal amount of flexibility and strength in each pose. Instead, it’s being aware of the posture, its demands, and what we experience when we allow everything to come into some sort of balance, which varies depending on the pose, the person, and the day.

A sequence for building strength and flexibility

This sequence will help you find space and balance in the constant tussle between strength and flexibility.

Photo: Emilie Bers

Balasana (Child’s Pose) Variation 

Why it works: Is there any more quintessential pose of contraction than Child’s Pose? We are curled in upon ourselves like an embryo, as if we are preparing to unfurl and be reborn. Engaging your arms helps us feel the potential to expand and lengthen, even when we find ourselves in a deeply folded state.

How to: Start in kneeling. Bring your knees slightly wider than your hips and sink your hips toward your heels, resting your forehead on a block. Reach your arms forward and in line with your ears, rising up on your fingertips. Press your fingertips against the mat to draw your chest toward the front of the mat. At the same time, get heavy in your hips, as though someone were pressing them back and down. Breathe here for 20 long breaths. Observe if your presence wanders. Take your time.

Photo: Emilie Bers

Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose) Variation

Why it works: This pose physically shows us that contracting in a shape (in this case, the bind) can also help generate bigger expansions. Using the strap helps make this variation accessible to all, but feel free to ditch the strap and go for the full bind. Just favor keeping your chest open over grabbing your hands but collapsing in your chest.

How to: Grab a strap and stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) facing the long end of your mat. Step your feet out wide and turn your right leg toward the front of the mat from deep within your hip. Aim your right toes for the middle of the short edge of the mat. Angle your back foot and hip in slightly, aligning your feet heel-to-heel.

Place the strap in your left hand and on an exhale, lean your torso sideways over your front thigh as you come into Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose). Drop the lower end of the strap behind your front leg and reach under your thigh with your right hand to grab the strap. Turn your chest open and lean back with your upper body. Draw your shoulder heads back, opening your chest. Keep your neck long and, if it is available, begin to turn your gaze upward. Whatever you are clasping—fingers or strap—pull against it. Use the reverberation to open your chest more. Breathe here for 10 deep breaths.

Come out slowly, first releasing your bottom hand from the strap and reaching your left arm up to the sky. Press into your front heel and inhale your torso upright. As you exhale, parallel your feet and move the strap to your right hand and repeat on your left side.

Photo: Emilie Bers

Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge) Variation

Why it works: Rather than fighting against the truth of the moment and forcing ourselves to resist during quieter times, we can learn how to hunker down comfortably. This lunge variation teaches us to give our brain a break and let our heart take the lead.

How to: Have a block near the front of your mat. Start in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) and inhale as you lift your right leg up. As you exhale, step your right foot to the outside of your right hand. (It may take several steps to reach your hand.) Place the block inside your leg. Lower your elbows onto the block and bring your palms together. Feel free to adjust the prop’s height to suit your needs, using more than one or getting rid of the block all together.

Hug your right inner thigh against your shoulder. As you do that, actively reach your chest toward the front of your mat. Keep the back of your neck long by looking straight down or even slightly back. Remain for 10 full breaths. Place your hands on either side of your front foot and step back to Downward Dog before repeating on your left side.

Photo: Emilie Bers

Garudasana (Eagle Pose)

Why it works: We must pull in both before and after periods of expansion in order to refuel for the next inevitable climb. Going from upright Eagle to a full forward bend Eagle and back up again helps us feel this truth in our body. Olivia Barry, a certified yoga therapist and physical therapist in Northern California, believes the benefits of full Eagle to be numerous.“There is less demand on the posterior side of the body compared to upright Eagle,” explains Barry. “The back and hip extensors can relax and spread while the front body abdominal and hip flexors are more active.” She also believes this pose to be a great preparation for Bakasana.

How to: From Down Dog, walk or hop forward and stand tall to find Tadasana (Mountain Pose). On an inhalation, reach your arms alongside your ears and sit back into Utkatasana (Chair Pose). Lift your left thigh and wrap your left leg once or twice around your bent right leg. If you are unable to wrap twice, your left toes can be on the floor like a “kickstand” or your ankles can squeeze together.

Cross your right elbow over your left elbow and bring your opposite palms together. Take an inhale in the upright shape and then on an exhale, round your spine, touching your elbows just ahead of your knees or to the knees. Keep your lower back broad with full breaths. Continue to reach your chest and forearms forward to open your upper back. Remain for 5 breaths. On an inhale, slowly come back upright with the torso. Return to Chair on an exhalation. Repeat on the other side.

Photo: Emilie Bers

Bakasana (Crane or Crow Pose)

Why it works: Nature teaches us that when we squeeze in, it consolidates our power. Think of geysers (or even a toothpaste tube!). The narrower the entry point, the more powerful the stream. We feel this reality in our bodies in Bakasana, in which the tighter the legs hug in, the greater the potential there is to expand the chest open.

How to: From Chair, come into a squat position on your tiptoes with your big toes touching. Separate your knees apart and snuggle your body in between your inner legs, hugging your shoulders between your thighs. Place your hands a few inches ahead of your shoulders, bend your elbows, and start to shift your weight forward.

Keep your bum at the same height as your upper body, slowly reaching your chest forward, until one or both feet leave the floor. Once balancing, squeeze your upper arms with your inner thighs. Hug your ankles in toward each other. Your gaze is slightly ahead. These actions plus the focused gaze stabilize your body, and from that place, you can keep expanding your chest forward and possibly lift your feet a bit higher. Try to hold for 5 full breaths. Return to your squat. Try it one more time.

See also: More yoga sequences by Sarah Ezrin

Sarah Ezrin is a yoga teacher trainer, mama, motivator, and writer. Based out of San Francisco, where she lives with her husband, son, and their dog, Sarah is changing the world, teaching self-love one person at a time. Learn more at

Photos shot on location by Emilie Bers at All Together Company.

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