Yoga shouldn't be classified as an "easy" form of exercise. The muscle engagement, focus, control, balance, and breathwork required to operate in tandem can certainly feel just as challenging as a set of burpees. Any rumors of the practice solely being a form of stretching and meditation are false—yes, these elements are involved (and widely beneficial), but one can gain marked muscle tone and endurance from consistent yoga movement. One study found that participants who completed 24 cycles of sun salutations, six days a week, for 24 weeks, saw a significant increase in upper body strength, endurance, and, for the female participants, a decrease in body fat percentage.
Whether you're a regular yogi or someone just beginning their practice, you may be interested in eventually kicking things up a notch to push yourself even further physically and mentally. Advanced yoga poses can help to work larger muscle groups and strengthen your body even more than a standard Chaturanga. Below, Liza Colpa, yoga instructor with YogaToday, a subscription-based virtual fitness platform that offers thousands of on-demand yoga, Pilates, and meditation classes, has shared a series of moves and detailed instructions for each that will work your body and mind at an even greater rate than you're used to (and who knows, perhaps soon you'll be snagging a front-row mat in class).
Benefits: Stretches and strengthens the wrists, biceps, and upper arms; opens up the chest and throat area.
From the plank pose, slowly lower your chest and chin down to the yoga mat. Using your core, hug the inner thighs in towards each other, lift one leg and then the other to rest on your hands and chin.
Benefits: Opens up the hamstrings, chest, and glute muscles.
From a seated position, see if you can get your right leg over the right shoulder. From there, place your right hand down to ground you, and take a hold of the right foot with the left hand. Hug the inner thighs in towards each other, broaden through the chest, and press the right foot into the left hand to extend the right leg straight behind you. Repeat on the other side.
Benefits: Opens the hips; strengthens the core, arms, and wrists.
From Garland pose or a yoga squat, walk the big toes together and see if you can rest your knees high on your triceps. Begin to rock back and forth on the wrists, and when you feel stable, leaning forward, use your core strength to hug the inner thighs up and in towards each other. Engage your core and lift the toes up and in towards the glute muscles.
Benefits: Total-body engagement pose.
This pose strengthens and lengthens all parts of the body from head to toe, especially the inner thighs, back, arms, and wrists. From sitting, see if you can wrap the right leg over the right shoulder. Then send your left leg in front of your right hand. Hook the ankles, lean forward to lift the hips, and squeeze the inner thighs in towards one another. Repeat on the other side.
Benefits: Strengthens the upper body, arms, wrists, and shoulders.
With the knees together and pointing to the right side, see if you can rest the right hip on your right elbow, and your right knee on the left elbow. Lean forward, engage the core, and feel the toes lift off the ground. From there, see if you can split the legs apart, reaching the left leg up and back.
Benefits: Strengthens arms, core, shoulder, and back; increases circulation.
From Dolphin Pose, walk feet to the heart. Send your gaze between the wrist, and lift one leg and hop to lift the other. Once you are stable and the legs are overhead, engage your core, press the forearms into the ground, bend the knees, and begin to send your gaze forward and up, opening the chest, as the feet come towards the head.
Benefits: Alleviates stress, calms the mind, helps with memory, stimulates the lymphatic system, and strengthens the core and back.
Making a basket with the hands, keeping the elbows shoulder-distance apart, place the crown of the head down onto the mat. Press the forearms into the ground, and then lift your knees and walk the feet towards the face. Begin to lift one foot, then the other. Once knees are tucked and feet are off the ground, send knees over hips, then ankle over knees until the legs are straight.
Benefits: Stretches the hip flexors, quadriceps, and hamstrings.
Step the right leg to the outside of your right hand. Heel-toe the right foot out to the side of the yoga mat, and begin to use the ball of your foot to curl toes under and straighten your back left leg behind you as much as you can. Then, see if you can twist to the inside of your right leg and reach around and take hold of your left foot. Press the left foot into the hand, then draw the hand into the foot to find a deeper stretch. You can also try this on your forearms.
Benefits: Stretches the thighs, hips, quadriceps, chest, and glute muscles; opens the upper back.
From a three-legged dog, while your right leg is lifted, send your right knee behind your right wrist, and your right heel towards your left hip point. Then, walk your left foot behind you. From this Pigeon Posture, twist to the left and see if you can take hold of the top of your left foot. See if you can send the left foot into the crook of the elbow, then send your right hand back behind you to take a hold of your left hand.
Nataranjasana (or "Dancer Pose")
Benefits: Stretches shoulders, core, chest, and quadriceps; strengthens core stability.
Transfer your weight into your right foot, and take a hold of the left foot with the left hand bending at the knee. Then, take hold of the inside of your left foot. Press the top of the foot into the hand. Lift your foot nice and high by pressing the foot back and up.
Benefits: Strengthens the upper body, core, glute muscles; lengthens hamstrings.
With the knees together and pointing to the right side, see if you can rest the right hip on the right elbow, and the left side of the leg on the left elbow. Lean forward, engage the core, and feel the toes lift off the ground.
Side Plank With Lifted Leg Variation
Benefits: Opens up hamstrings.
From the side plank posture, lift the hips nice and high and send the right knee into the free top hand. See if you can wrap two fingers around the big toe. Then, extend the leg forward and up to stack over the top of the right hip.
Standing Hand to Big Toe
Benefits: Stabilizes the core and opens up hamstrings as well as the hips.
Transfer the weight into the right foot. Lift the left foot off the ground and interlace fingers around the left knee. From here, see if you can wrap two fingers around the big toe and extend the left leg forward and out to the side. Hug the inner thighs in towards each other for stability. Perform on both sides for symmetrical muscle balance and mobility.
Standing Forward Fold to Tripod Headstand Press
Benefits: Stretches hamstrings and back; strengthens arms, back, and core.
From a wide-legged forward fold, rest your head on the ground and place the hands to the side of your face. Make sure elbows are over the wrist and hugged in. From there, you can move both knees to the bent elbows, or use your core and inner thigh strength to reach the legs to the side and up into a straddle.
Wild Thing Into Bow Pose
Benefits: Opens up the chest, back, and hip flexors.
From a three-legged dog, flip your dog, and have your free right foot touch the ground. Pivot your foot to press all four corners down into the yoga mat. From here, send the hips up and reach the free right hand back. Keep lifting through the hips until you create enough space in your upper back to send the right hand down to the floor and flip the left fingertips to face towards your feet. From here, walk the feet closer to the hands, coming into the full bow.
Once you've mastered these poses, consider heading over to YogaToday for their advanced series full-length classes.
Bhutkar, M. V., Bhutkar, P. M., Taware, G. B., & Surdi, A. D. (2011). How effective is sun salutation in improving muscle strength, general body endurance and body composition?. Asian journal of sports medicine, 2(4), 259–266. https://doi.org/10.5812/asjsm.34742