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  • Baxter Bell, MD

The Use of TheraBands in Yoga


Using TheraBands in Yoga Practice

For over a year now, I have been integrating the stretchy bands called TheraBands into my yoga practice and teaching. I got turned onto these useful props by my wife and amazing yoga teacher Melina Meza, who started using them for a special series of classes she started in 2023 called Yoga with Weights. In that class, she integrates small hand weights, ankle weights and TheraBands to increase the strength building potential of our yoga poses. I bet many of you have a TheraBand sitting around in a closet from a Physical Therapy visit you had years ago. You may want to dig it out and add it your yoga prop box after you finish reading this post!

 

Let’s start off by asking ourselves why increasing strength in one’s yoga practice is important? The reality of aging is that over time, if we are not very actively doing something to maintain or even improve our baseline body strength, we will gradually start to become weaker. This aging process has a name in scientific circles- it’s called “skeletal muscle atrophy”, and left unaddressed it can progress to a more serious form of muscle loss and weakness called “sarcopenia”. I like to say it’s the muscle equivalent to the loss of bone with age so many of you are familiar with: normal bone thinning to the state of osteopenia, progressing to osteoporosis. In fact, these two processes, gradual bone thinning and gradual loss of muscle mass, fibers and strength, often occur together!

 

Because skeletal muscle atrophy usually comes on slowly, it may not be readily apparent. It does reveal itself when you go to do an activity you have not done for a number of months, such as the first time back out in the garden in spring when it seems noticeably more demanding for your body than last season! So, this process of gradual loss of strength can start to impact your activities of daily living and those other important things that add spice to your life, like hiking, biking or playing tennis. You use your body strength for both times of strong exertion (lifting heavy pots in the garden) and activities that require endurance, such as those just mentioned. How much loss are we talking about? One source shares the following stats: after the age of 40, the average person loses 1% of muscle mass/year, 2-4% of muscle strength, and 8-10% of muscle power. With that in mind, does your yoga practice keep you strong enough as you age?

 

Well, we don’t have adequate research at this time to say for certain, and if it does, it likely depends on the style of yoga you practice. As you may know, there are gentle, restorative practices that may not contribute a lot to building or maintaining strength, and others such as the Iyengar style or “power yoga” styles that are more likely to help some. But we do have quite a bit of research on the application of “resistance training” in preserving and improving strength as we age. One author defines it as ““a form of periodic exercise whereby external weights provide progressive overload to skeletal muscles in order to make them stronger and often result in hypertrophy.” Your mind might jump to the phrase “external weights” and transport you to the gym and the weightlifting section. However, the use of the highly portable and easy to use stretchy TheraBands have been found to be quite effective in building strength and are easy to integrate into your yoga practice!

 

The gold standard for health benefits from exercise seems to be aerobic activities, with a lot of research to support it. But did you know that resistance training (RT) actually equals and in some cases surpasses those benefits? A 2010 study noted the following benefits from regular RT: improves cardiovascular function, improves control or prevents Type 2 Diabetes, improved function in those with arthritis, improved bone density in osteoporosis, supporting cancer recovery, reducing the chances of sarcopenia, and improved weight management in those with obesity.


And we are now even starting to see research comparing yoga and RT. One such study in 2020, looked at the impact of yoga or resistance training on a group of people with high blood pressure and noted that the yoga group showed better impacts on HDL cholesterol, but the RT group had more muscle mass. Neither group was superior in regards to insulin resistance. Yet another mental health focused study showed both modalities improved symptoms of depression, yet another health benefit.

 

I am hoping you are getting excited about not only the benefits to strength that a simple tool like a TheraBand can add to your yoga practice, but all the other health benefits that mirror much of what we know yoga can also provide over time. Since RT espouses progressive challenge to your body’s myofascial system over time, I’d recommend that if you are ready to dive in and add some TheraBands to your regular yoga practices, get yourself a set of them. They come in different colors, each one related to how much stretch or stiffness they have. Especially if you have not been working on strength as one of your personal goals of practice, start with the easier bands that are more stretchy and gradually work towards the tighter ones over time. I use the 5 foot long ones, but as you will discover once you start shopping around, they come in many varieties.

 

And when you integrate RT into a yoga practice, you often bring some distinct advantages to this kind of practice you might not get at the gym. When adopting the yogic mindset, you add moment-to-moment awareness (no TV’s on like at the gym!), you connect your breath to your movements, you cultivate interoception or the awareness of the inner effects of your actions, and you prioritize how the work feels over how the body looks. So many of my students over the last 6 months or so are reporting back to me the noticeable positive impact that the TheraBands are having on their experience of strength and endurance.

 

Although I could go into a lot of detail on “how” to use the bands with your dynamic and static poses, I want to invite you instead to consider joining me for an upcoming in person or Zoom class to experience it in real time. I believe that what you learn in even one class will give you some great ideas for how to use these simple, effective tools in your home practice and in other classes you take.

 

For those who love research studies, here are some links to articles mentioned above:

• Uncomplicated Resistance Training and Health-Related Outcomes: Evidence for a Public Health Mandate


• Effects of Yoga and Resistance Training on Metabolic and Anthropometric Parameters in Hypertensive Subjects


•A comparison of the effects of hatha yoga and resistance exercise on mental health and well-being in sedentary adults: a pilot study

 

1 Comment


Beth Cholette
Beth Cholette
Jun 12

I'm actually doing a Yoga for Healthy Aging workshop this week! This is Part 1 and will focus on Strength and Flexibility. I think I'll reference this article in my resources!

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