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As I twisted my torso to reach one hand to the floor and strained to keep the other elevated in the air, fighting against the weight gripped aloft that was pulling me down, I couldn’t help but think that this wasn’t like any yoga class I’d tried before.
I was about halfway through my demo session of Equinox’s new Yoga Strong program, and I was being pushed to my limit. I’m not a consistent enough yogi to claim I have an active “practice”—I last regularly attended a sunrise Vinyasa class in my early twenties over half a decade ago—but I’m no newbie, either. I take my mobility seriously for my other physical pursuits (mainly martial arts, strength training, and running), so I try to mix yoga movements into my warmups and cooldowns. When I arrived at Equinox’s Columbus Circle location for a morning class, I was ready to run through a standard yoga session’s poses and sequences. That’s usually not too much of a challenge for me. Yoga Strong’s added wrinkle, a ten-pound sandbag used to provide resistance in a variety ways, brought an entirely new strength-honing element into the equation.
Using sandbags in yoga isn’t entirely unprecedented. The tool is a component of the Iyengar yoga tradition, often used as a prop to help deepen a stretch or to allow a yogi to add pressure to a pose, grounding the yogi to the floor. That’s one technique present in the Yoga Strong course, in which I was tasked to place the bag on my feet or my back at various points—but the tool is used more often as an opportunity to provide resistance to the typically unloaded Vinyasa flows, like the challenging triangle pose I described earlier.
“We wanted to add weight to a yoga class for two reasons: one, to add intensity and enhance the strengthening benefits of traditional yoga postures and two, to add a grounding element when placed on the body in restorative postures (similar to a gravity blanket),” says Michael Gervais, a Director at Equinox who was one of the creators of the program. “We looked at a lot of ways we could add load other than just bringing dumbbells into the yoga studio—for instance we experimented with weighted blocks, wearable weights, bands.”
The team finally settled on sandbags after taking notice of the weights typically used to secure backdrops and lighting equipment on photoshoots. A yoga gear manufacturer added a seam and handles to make the implement easier to heft, and, after a few iterations, the final form was ready for flows. As I gripped the bag, which can be folded hamburger-style at the seam to bring the handles together in the palm of your hand, I realized that the most fitting analogue to more traditional strength training equipment was a kettlebell. Once I had that comparison in mind, I could relate the movements I was performing in the class with the exercises I do in my typical workouts that focus on building strength and muscle.
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The structure of the class itself is based on the Ashtanga Yoga series, according to Gervais, which follows a set pattern of repeated movements. Yoga Strong instructors are given some leeway to innovate within the format, especially considering the use of the sandbag. My instructor, Margaret, was both welcoming and assuring, offering scaling options for class members who struggled with the poses and more challenging variations for those who were strong enough to handle the bag’s extra weight.
I appreciated this focus—I love to step out of my typical workout boxes when I have the chance. While Yoga Strong isn’t aimed at any one type of person (Gervais says the real target demo are “those who want their yoga to be their workout”), I could imagine stereotypically yoga-averse men trying the class and loving the challenge.
Margaret led us through the familiar Vinyasa movements, but the addition of rowing movements to work the back muscles, some overhead pressing for the shoulders, and even a forward bend with the bag balanced on the lower back to challenge the hips and low back made it a whole new type of workout. Typically, you wouldn’t expect pulling movements to be prominently featured in a yoga flow. This hybrid approach complimented the typical burn I feel in my muscles when challenged to hold a pose past my comfort threshold—but during the class, I pumped through reps of rows at the same time. Ten pounds doesn’t sound like a lot of weight, but as I fought to keep my strict position, every extra ounce felt magnified.
Courtesy of Equinox
After moving through the flow, my class ended with a challenging series of balance moves, made even more difficult with the addition of the sandbag placed in strategic spots. From tree pose to lunges to a final round of warrior three holds, I was shaking, but determined to use my strength to fight the weight and keep my stance.
We wrapped up the series, had a moment to work through our own problem spots with poses and stretches, and finally settled down on our mats into shavasana, the relaxed supine position that closes most yoga sessions. Now, the sandbag was especially welcome as a grounding tool on top of me at my waist (I even added an extra bag to my chest), and I could feel my body sink into the floor. As the class ended, I felt relaxed as I often do post-yoga—but also like I had pushed my muscles to the threshold of my strength.
Yoga Strong is available at all Equinox locations. Check here for local schedules.
Brett Williams, NASM
Brett Williams, a fitness editor at Men’s Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter who splits his workout time between strength and conditioning training, martial arts, and running.
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