Take a stand
After finishing your yoga flow, your body will be warm and your mind clear. Now is the moment to get into high-intensity poses. I refer to such as standing poses. They are essential to muscle growth and flexibility.
Once you awake your metabolism, that is, your energy source through the flow state, you are ready to explore poses in length. My approach is to invest in the most demanding poses earlier in the session. As the energy dissipates (your metabolism starts to slow down), softer poses are incorporated, leaving the most relaxing ones for last. Following this idea, you can start with standing poses because they require plenty of energy, strength, flexibility, and coordination.
A broader meaning to standing poses
Standing poses include every pose on which the torso is lifted off the ground by hands, feet or both. Here are the more relevant subgroups:
Standing in both feet: Tadasana, Utanasana, Warrior I and II, Lunges, Trikonasana, Pyramid, Extended Side Angle, and Wide-Legged Forward Bend are the most common poses. Most of these are part of standard flow sequences, but it is equally important to explore them individually and in-depth.
Standing in one foot: They are also known commonly as balancing poses. The most popular ones are Warrior III, Tree, Dancer and Extended Hand to Toe. They are crucial to developing core and inner thigh strength. They also require plenty of mental concentration, and ideal when your mind is stuck with an idea or a problem.
Standing on hands and feet: In my opinion, everyone should aim to master these critical poses, because they bring overall strength and flexibility. They include Plank, Downward Facing Dog, Upward-Facing Dog, and Side Plank. Other advanced poses are Wheel and Chaturanga. I strongly encourage you to find and work on the progressions that allow you to develop this poses regularly.
Shoulder-stand and headstand: They are also considered as advanced poses. Most teachers reserve these poses for the later part of the practice, but I like to include them early in the session because of the energy and focus they demand. Inversions like these, when your head is below your heart, stimulate the cardiovascular system and build core strength too.
Standing on hands: Known as arm balancing poses, they are considered as very advanced poses. The most common ones are Handstand, Crow, and Crane. You will need great core and upper body strength before attempting to do them.
Strength and Flexibility
These poses mainly target muscle strength and flexibility. Strength is the result of muscle growth, which is a consequence of muscle contraction, which is often significantly higher during standing poses. Flexibility is the result of active stretching conditioning. In other words, the result of developing the ability to elongate the muscle while contracting it. Active stretching is also high on intensity in most standing poses.
If you want to develop strength and flexibility, you must spend more time on standing poses. However, you must be careful because at this point, your body is still under the effect of adrenaline and cortisol. These are important hormones our body releases during fight-or-flight situations, to suppress pain signaling, and inflammation. Under such condition, it is easier to surpass the limits of your strength and flexibility, increasing your chances of getting an injury.
Yoga promotes muscle growth under the right conditions. Three mechanisms stimulate hypertrophy (muscle growth). The first is muscle damage, which is not considered the most significant. The second is muscle tension, created by muscle contraction and by active stretching. And the last one is metabolic stress, which is created during muscle fatigue. The last two factors need to be present to stimulate hypertrophy. In regards to your Yoga practice, there are two conditions: First, being able to hold the pose firmly and secondly, holding the pose for several seconds, close to the point of failure (never hold the pose up to muscle failure).
In other words, you are not stimulating muscle growth if you can't hold the pose at all or if you can hold the pose for a few minutes. You need to find a balance by choosing variations of poses that are challenging enough to bring you close to fatigue in less than two minutes, but easy enough to hold steady during the same period.
Dos: Make sure you rest and avoid further muscle stimulus for at least 36 hours. Follow a balanced diet (I will go into the specifics of this topic in another article)
Don'ts: Do not hold poses up to failure, it is not required. Avoid pain. Muscle soreness is not needed. Repeating a pose is not necessary, because once you target a muscle group, the stimulus is created.
Active Stretching and Flexibility
Flexibility is the elongation capacity of a muscle. There are still no conclusive studies explaining the science behind muscle flexibility. Michael Alter, author of Science of Flexibility states in his book that muscle tissue is elastic enough to stretch up to 150% before tearing, while tendons can only do so up to 4%. If muscles are so flexible, why can they elongate too far? A popular theory of muscle extensibility indicates that most of the muscle stretching limitation is a response from spindle fibers. These fibers can contract and relax like regular muscle tissue, but the difference is that spindle fiber is sensitive to how quick and how far the muscle stretches. If the stretch is too intense, these fibers send signals via sensory neurons into the spinal cord. In response, a signal is sent back to all muscle fibers to contract. This system aims to protect the muscle from damage and to maintain stability around the joints.
During active stretching, spindle cells get triggered gradually and over several seconds. Another set of sensitive cells called Golgi tendon organ (GTO), receptors located at the end of the muscle. If the tendon is not stretching (and it should not!) the GTO send a counter signal to the spine to relax the muscle, allowing the muscle to elongate further. By repeating the stretch frequently, the sensibility of the spindle cells diminishes making the muscle more flexible.
As the heat dissipates, you transition into lower-intensity poses. Seated poses are the next standard step. Sometimes I like to focus mostly on standing poses during my practice, but if that is the case, I usually skip seated poses or add only a couple to the sequence. That is the beauty of individual practice. You have plenty of room for creativity to address your unique needs. In Yoga, most rules can be bent.