Kettlebells and Yoga are a match made in heaven.
Let’s be very clear here: I am a yogi, not a lifter. But I still break out the Kettlebells every day. I don’t ever “pump iron”…but some poses are just easier and stronger with a little bit of extra weight in the right place.
Before I found Kettlebells, I couldn’t get a freestanding handstand or Kundanyasana, no matter how often I practiced. My hip flexors were tight because my rectus abdominis was weak. My balance was inconsistent, and my Hasta Bandha kept slipping.
So I started lifting kettlebells, and my practice started to grow right away. Now, I never practice without a set of kettlebells next to my mat, and I’m much stronger for it. Kettlebells have allowed me to find proper alignment, deepen stretches, and build abdominal strength I didn’t know I lacked.
Here are the my 8 favorite kettlebell modifications and exercises for yogis:
Malasana, or the yoga squat, is one of the most important asanas in any practice. It helps build stability in the feet and ankles, and openness in the low back and hips. It should be a comfortable, relaxing pose. However, if your sacrum, hips and ankles are tight Malasana can be one of the most uncomfortable, counterintuitive poses in your practice.
There are conventional modifications you can use, such as putting a blanket under your heels or sitting on a block, but I find that using a kettlebell as a counterweight is better for finding the alignment of the pose in the long term.
You can see on the left, the unweighted pose looks…uncomfortable. His thoracic spine is curved, his shoulders are scrunched around his neck, and (even though you can’t really see it) his heels are off the ground.
After we added the kettlebell on the right, you can see how much easier this pose looks. His spine is straight, his neck is long, and his heels are firmly on the ground.
You don’t need a lot of weight. I use an 18 lb kettlebell, for about 1 minute before I even attempt an unweighted squat. This encourages muscle memory for the correct alignment and builds a deeper practice over time.
The single legged deadlift is one of my favorite lifts since it’s basically just a weighted warrior 3. Start with a light weight, and slowly add more if you’re able to maintain your alignment the entire time. Make sure your hips are squared to the ground and your belly is firm. I usually do about 3 sets of 6-8 reps.
When you do this pose with a weight, it forces your core to engage, so your belly can’t spill out onto your standing thigh. It also forces the stabilizing muscles in your feet and ankles to compensate more quickly, which improves balance and stability in other standing poses.
SLDLs teach the strength and stability necessary to access warrior 3, Arda Chandrasana, Pavrita Arda Chandrasana and standing splits in a deeper, more connected way. They inspire confidence in balancing poses, which allows you to work more deeply into your alignment and strength.
Racked in warrior 2
One of my pet-peeves in yoga classes is when people are spilling forwards or sitting back too far in warrior 2. Warrior 2 is a strong pose that is meant to be held for an extended period of time to build leg, pelvic and core strength. Often times, when I see this pose, it looks like this:
or like this:
with no core engagement. Holding a racked kettlebell in your back hand forces the belly to engage, and solves this problem. I would suggest less than 20lbs for this pose.
Once your torso is properly engaged, you can start focusing on building strength in the front leg, lightness in the torso, and pelvic lift or Mula Bandha. This will deepen and strengthen the pose over time.
Bent Over Row
Without a weight, it’s impossible to find pulling motions in your yoga practice. We have lots of pressing and pushing motions, but we lack the basic and important skill of pulling. Luckily, if you have a weight beside your mat, it’s a very easy to incorporate a simple bent over row. Your basic starting position is Arda Uttanasana, with your legs slightly bent. You can do this row one or two handed.
If you’re trying to build back strength, this row coupled with your Chattaranga, plank, and inversions will get you there much faster than traditional yoga postures can do on their own.
Overhead press in Anjaniasana
Anjanaiasana is one of those poses where people sit in their flexibility. They let their belly hang out onto their thigh, their hips unsquare, and they overstretch through their hip flexor. Adding weight in this pose forces muscular engagement and proper alignment, which ultimately allows for a deeper expression of this pose.
You can just hold the weight racked at your shoulder, like we did in Warrior 2, but I recommend adding an overhead press. Not only does pressing the weight here build back and arm strength that can be very helpful in yoga, it also forces you to maintain that full-body muscular engagement rather than revert back to bad habits.
When it comes to my favorite things, deadlifts are right up there with puppies and handstands. I do at least 50 deadlifts a day. No only are they energizing and invigorating, they allowed me to find core engagement in a way that has made my yoga practice much, much stronger.
One common error people make in yoga is cheating core work into the hip flexors. I know I used to do it. It was one of the big reasons my practice plateaued the way it did: I couldn’t engage my core and relax my hip flexors during Navasana and other core-centric poses. This means that instead of building strength, I was losing flexibility.
Deadlifting bypasses this common stumbling block because it works your posterior chain and core without giving your hip flexors a chance to compensate. At the peak of this exercise, your hip flexors are fully extended, your core is tight, and your booty is tucked and engaged.
I use deadlifts as a prep for handstand and Kundanyasana, and throw in a set if my mind starts to wander while I’m trying to work. Every person, and especially every yogi, should be deadlifting regularly.
Skandasana is a very valuable pose that gets omitted in many practices. This deep, externally rotated squat encourages Mula Bandha pelvic engagement and inner thigh work that is hard to find elsewhere.
Adding a weight to this pose, especially in a Flow practice, forces the yogi to engage all the muscles of their pelvic girdle and inner thighs instead of just flinging themselves from one side to the other. I recommend using a light weight here, and getting a heavier one only when the light weight is no longer making a difference. Hold the kettlebell in front of you, and move slowly, with your Ujjayi breath, from side to side.
Skandasana is also a pose than can feel painful and futile if you lack the mobility to really get into it. Adding weight in a more stretch-oriented yoga practice can also be useful for accessing deeper flexibility the way we used it in Malasana: as a counterweight. Holding a kettlebell keeps your alignment good, and your muscles engaged while you settle into this deep external stretch.
Tadasana with heavy Kettlebells for Hasta Bandha.
Tadasana is, perhaps, the most important pose in the yoga lexicon. Every pose and all proper alignment stems from a centered Tadasana. I begin every practice by finding my alignment from the ground up, starting in Tadasana. Even if I then sit for meditation, I always find Tadasana first.
Almost as important as Tadasana is a strong Hasta Bandha, or grip. Hasta Bandha is key in any bound pose and every pose where you grab your foot, like chapasana or standing twist. By adding the heaviest kettlebell you can lift with one hand to your Tadasana, you can build Hasta Bandha and strengthen your posture and alignment. Ideally, you would use 2 lighter kettlebells of the same weight, but you can also switch hands halfway through your pose. Try to get 10 breaths on each side before you increase the kettlebell size.
(NB: You might have noticed that in poses where I’m holding weight in one hand, the other hand is in a tight fist. This is because making a fist strengthens the weighted hand’s grip)
Thanks for reading, yogis! Have fun, be safe, and grow strong,