I've been practicing ashtanga yoga for 5 years now. Which isn't that long in the grand scheme of things, but as far as a daily practice goes, it feels like forever. Or almost forever. There's a running (not very funny) joke in the ashtanga community: daily classes are called 'Mysore style' based on the part of India from which ashtanga originates. So people say things like 'Mysore back' or 'Mysore knee'. It's *kinda* funny the first time, the reason being that it's true. Yogis get injured a lot. Most of the time it's just a nagging pain here or there that isn't enough to actually call it an injury. Sometimes it's a bigger deal. Over the last 5 years, there are certain things that come up time and again with most of the yogis I talk to. Issues with strength and endurance, issues with injuries and weak spots, issues with recovery time and with joints. I don't think this applies to yoga alone, and most of these could apply to anybody with any kind of physical practice, be it running, jujitsu or dance. I'm splitting this article into three parts because it's kinda long. Today I'll post about strength and endurance. Next week, about injuries, and the week after, about recovery.
HERBS AND THERAPEUTICS FOR STRENGTH AND ENDURANCE:
Some people build muscle easily. I am not one of those people. As someone who tends towards estrogenic excess, I really have to work hard to build strength. These aren't herbs that I'd recommend to people who build muscle easily on their own- as far as I'm concerned, herbs don't work like that. I get seriously irritated when I see people taking herbs for energy when they have enough energy, or herbs to build muscle when they don't have an imbalance there- it might help in the short term, but it'll throw your body out of balance, and probably cause more problems in the long run. That said, I've noticed a huge difference in my endurance and ability to build muscle from taking a few different herbs and supplements:
Ashwaghanda. I have a serious love affair going on with this little plant. It's an adaptogen, which basically means it helps the body respond to stress better, but it also helps with androgen imbalance, which in turn helps you build muscle. I can always tell when I'm starting to get over-exhausted because things that shouldn't stress me out all of a sudden start making me cry. You too? Get some ashwaghanda and give it a try. One of the things I like best about ashwaghanda is that it's slightly sedative in action- it really calms you down, and if you take it before bed, it'll help you sleep more deeply. I start to notice a difference after a couple of doses, but, like all tonic herbs, it needs to be taken long-term to get the full effects. The one I get is from Zack Woods Herb Farm, but Mountain Rose and Pacific Botanicals both sell it as well.
Maca. I've just started experimenting with this herb as a friend brought some back from Peru. The thing I notice first is a burst of energy, which seems to fade over the next couple of hours. It supposedly balances sex hormones, and is often used as an aphrodesiac though, once again, it only works when it's constitutionally called for- it's not like taking a herbal viagra because herbs don't work like that. If somebody tells you that they do, or that something is one-size fits all then they're likely selling snake oil :). With regards to maca, I've noticed a minor increase in my strength after taking this for a week or so; not quite as much as when I take...
Eleuthero. Like ashwaghanda and maca, eleuthero is a strong tonic herb with pretty quick results. I notice an immediate energy boost from taking a dropper of the tincture (I use the one made by HerbPharm). It helps with muscle building pretty quickly, and I noticed the most significant strength increase from taking eleuthero. Matthew Wood says that you can even watch dark circles fading away, which I think is a neat trick. There are different types of dark circles, of course. It ain't gonna work for all of them, but if you have black shadows under your eyes from severe exhaustion, the right tonic herbs will really help.
Nettle seed. Fresh nettle seeds can be slightly speedy, which come in handy first thing in the morning if you're adverse to drinking coffee before yoga practice but still have trouble gathering the energy to do it. Dried nettle seeds provide a slow and sustained energy that can still be too much for some before bed, but for most, it's ok. They also help to rebuild worn out adrenals, and help with endurance.
Argenine. Argenine is fantastic if you're not opposed to taking amino acids. It helps with recovery (cuts sore muscle time in half, seriously), helps build strength and muscle. You can get a fancy version called NO2, but it's very expensive and I haven't noticed any difference between that and regular old pharmaceutical grade argenine which you can buy online in powder form. Warning: the powder form tastes beyond foul, and if you're already a testosteroney person, your sex drive will be out of control and nobody will want to talk to you because of your aggression issues.
Other things that help with strength and endurance are:
Sleep. I'm not kidding. Your body can't run on empty, and the majority of America is experiencing some kind of sleep debt or another. Most people need 8+ hours a night. If you haven't been getting that and you feel tired a lot then you're likely not going to achieve optimum levels of strength or endurance.
Calories. I'm not talking about carb-loading. I hate carb-loading. But getting adequate amounts of protein and fat is absolutely necessary if you're putting your body through the wringer. And if you're an athlete and counting calories at the same time but don't have to weigh in tomorrow then you're doing yourself a disservice- our bodies know best. Really, truly. I meet with too many people who say things like 'but you don't understand- if I listened to my body then I'd eat nothing but butter!'. This isn't a bad thing! Stop counting calories and add an extra pat of butter to your sweet potato- your body will thank you, promise.
Weight lifting. I'm not talking about full on gym sessions, but quick bursts of activity. These quick bursts (say, leaving your desk for 4 minutes to do some Tabata sprints around the building, or doing kettle bell swings, or push ups) jump start HGH production in your body, burn fat and give you a little energy boost. Really quick bursts like this make a bigger difference than doing long sessions on the side, in my opinion.