Yoga provides balance. It balances strength with softness; cardio with breath-work; muscle growth with mobility and flexibility; and even ambition with self-care. This makes it a truly transformative practice.
However, there is one aspect of yoga where physical balance is slightly lacking – pulling exercises.
Now, I don't say this to claim that there is no pulling (motions that pull the limbs in towards the body) in yoga. There is. For example, pulling your arms down into a cactus shape while retracting the shoulder blades, is pulling. However, the amount of weight your body resists in pushing motions (motions that exert force away from the body) such as Chaturanga is disproportionately more. This is because gravity moves us downwards towards the earth, therefore when on our mats, we're pushing (not pulling) our weight upwards against it. This increased load when pushing, translates to increased strength in our anterior chain (the muscles on the front of our body) and lower posterior chain (legs, glutes, lower back, etc.).
What we often fail to strengthen sufficiently is our upper posterior chain, which corresponds with pulling exercises. Since these muscles contribute to our ability to lift objects and maintain a healthy posture, an imbalance between the front body and upper back body can lead to a lot of tension, pain, and injury.
This is on top of the fact that as modern humans, we already spend most of our time leaning forward. We sit at desks, we stare at our phones, we hunch on the couch…the list goes on. A strong (and often tight) front body further accentuates these closed-body positions.
To open our chest, lengthen our spines, and retract and depress (i.e. have a good posture), we need to pull. Therefore, to create sufficient pulling motion that works the back and shoulders, we either need to get some equipment or increase the frequency of our (often less focused on) pulling movements.
So here are a few pulling (or at least posterior chain-focused) exercises that you can add into your yoga practice or class to help even out this commonly-seen imbalance.
Locust Pose (Salabhasana) with arms overhead - Locust pose is a classic isometric strength-building posture that can really strengthen the whole back body. It will particularly target the upper back when the arms are lifted overhead. To find Locust with arms overhead, lay on your stomach with your legs extended long and hands reading up beyond the top of the mat. Take a moment here to engage your core by pulling your navel in towards your spine and contracting your glutes. Zip the legs together, allowing them to rotate inwards slightly. Engage the quads, and hamstrings, and point the toes. Maintaining this full body engagement, begin to lift the legs and arms until they hover at their maximum height (maximum means highest height without compromising form). Bring the attention to the scapula, as they pull towards one another (and rotate laterally, if you wanna get anatomical). In class, I typically like to take locust in three parts so students can feel the lift of the legs and arms separately. First, I’ll start with the hands pressing into the ground by the sides and lift the legs, then I’ll ground the legs and only lift the arms overhead, and finally I’ll lift both the arms and legs. Give it a try!
Blanket Pulls - Using a blanket can be a great way to find some pulling motions without the need for other equipment (such as bands, weights, pull-up bar, etc.). One (of several) ways to do this is by laying on your stomach on the blanket with your arms reaching upwards, and your hands a bit wider than shoulder width. From there, imagine as if you're doing horizontal pull-ups. Press down through the hands, and pull the chest up towards the hands so the body slides along the ground. Retract the shoulder blades and engage the upper back as the chest slides forward. From there, you can push back to repeat or pull yourself along the floor if you have the space.
Active Happy Baby - The resistance created by actively pulling on the feet in Happy Baby pose can be another way to engage the pulling muscles that retract the scapula. To find your active Happy Baby, lay on your back and pull the knees in towards your chest. Reach the hands along the inside of the legs then grab the outsides of the feet. Simultaneously push through the feet as you retract and pull the shoulder blades towards one another. Work to ground the sacrum so that it lays flat on the mat. The shins can come parallel to one another and perpendicular to the floor.
If you have the time, space, and interest to invest in some more serious (but still relatively inexpensive) pulling equipment, there are a few options.
Gymnastics Rings - Functional movement and calisthenics practitioners (as well as gymnasts) will tell you that gymnastics rings are one of the best strength building tools. Not only can you use them to build strength through relatively simple movements like Australian pull-ups and rows, but stability and flexibility through isometric holds like the support hold or the German hang. I personally use these rings from PACEARTH.
Doorway Pull Up Bar - I’ve felt a few different ways about doorway pull up bars since my old one fell and almost crushed our cat, but ultimately (if you don’t have the space to hang gymnastics rings) it’s really hard to find anything that compares in terms of pulling resources. Recently, I’ve been using and enjoying this super minimalist pull-up bar from FEIERDUN, which has been working really well.
Resistance Bands - If you're looking for something a bit lighter than the rings, grabbing some elastic resistance bands like these with a doorway attachment can be a great way to do a wide range of back exercises such as face pulls, assisted pull-ups, or bent rows.
Lastly, if you’d like to look beyond adding a few exercises to your practice, cross-training with a totally different athletic discipline can be hugely effective. For pulling motions, rock climbing is one of the best. Similarly, calisthenics and gymnastics provide a lot of similar benefits for amateur practitioners.
Hopefully, some of these resources have encouraged you to think critically and curiously about your practice, so that you can find an even greater level of balance and equilibrium. You may even find that adding some pulling will allow you to increase stability when bearing weight on the upper body.
If you have any other great pulling exercises that you enjoy, please share them with us in the comments below!
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