I bend at the waist, then twist my torso, reaching my right hand towards the floor as I reach my left hand towards the ceiling. I’m in triangle pose, a classic yoga position that stretches my chest and opens my hips and lower back.
But this triangle feels different. I’m midway through Equinox’s new SandBag Yoga Strong class, a unique training experience that uses a 10-pound (4.5kg) sandbag for nearly every move. Right now that sandbag is in my left hand, and its weight is continually forcing me to reach my left arm just a bit higher. The class, at Columbus Circle in New York City, has 12 members, and when two people near me struggle, our instructor, Margaret, walks over to them and helps them reposition the sandbag. She’s friendly but deliberate, telling several other people to do the move without the sandbag to get it right.
I squeeze my abs a little tighter and clench my glutes. And in this moment, I can feel how different this is from your average yoga session: the sandbag resistance is stealthily challenging my muscles to activate or fire during basic stretches.
Yoga Strong is the latest class to introduce resistance tools to flexibility workouts, a trend that’s been popping up in
many yoga classes. The CorePower Yoga chain offers a YogaSculpt class that uses light dumbbells, while Iron Yoga, another dumbbell-based practice, is growing in popularity. Decades before all that, the Iyengar yoga tradition, which originated in India, integrated sandbags to help you deepen stretches, add pressure to key poses and ground yourself.
Equinox considered other modes of resistance, like weighted blocks, wearable weights and resistance bands, says Michael Gervais, one of the creators of Yoga Strong and a director at Equinox. But the team settled on sandbags after noticing their flexibility. A yoga-gear manufacturer added a custom seam and handles to make these implements easy to heft, and after a few iterations, the final form was ready for flows. It works brilliantly in class, too, especially when I’m told to fold it, hamburger-style, at the seam to bring the handles together in my palm. Suddenly, it feels like a kettlebell.
And once I see the sandbag as a slightly unstable kettlebell, many of the moves start to make sense. That’s partly because of how Margaret programs. She’s a yoga instructor, but she injects a strength-training vibe into this class. After several familiar yoga moves, like chair pose and downward dog, she pushes us through more strength-based exercises.
We do bent-over rowing movements, training our back muscles by hinging forward, squeezing our shoulder blades, and pulling the sandbag toward our rib cage. We challenge our shoulders by pressing the sandbag overhead. Later, we challenge our hips and lower back, bending forward with the bag balanced on the small of our back.
No, these aren’t classic yoga moves, and no, I’m not moving heavy weight. But I enjoy this hybrid training approach, and my muscles are starting to feel a burn. This is the perfect yoga class for guys like me, who focus on strength training but know they need flexibility work. I’m getting stretched out, but the sandbag makes me work for it.
That’s particularly true during Yoga Strong’s version of warrior 3. I balance on my left leg, bending at the waist until my torso is nearly parallel to the floor, my right leg straight behind me. The sandbag hangs in my straight arms below my chest. Then I squeeze my shoulder blades and row upwards. I’ve held a warrior 3 before but not while rowing. Ten pounds doesn’t sound heavy, but as I fight to keep my strict position, the tiny sandbag delivers plenty of challenge.
Following all that weight work, we transition to balance moves. First I’m in tree pose, balancing on my right foot, my left foot pinned to my right thigh, a sandbag held overhead.
Moments after that, I’m on the final round of warrior 3 holds and my entire body is shaking. I’m using all my strength just to hold my stance. We end the workout by lying on our back in Savasana, the relaxed position that closes most yoga sessions – and Yoga Strong has a twist on this as well. Now my sandbag is a grounding tool, sitting on my waist and pressing my hips down. I love it so much that I grab another sandbag and place it on my chest, feeling my body truly sink into the floor.
It turns out sandbags are great for building muscle – and helping me relax, too.
Time to switch on
Build flexibility (and muscle) with these moves from Yoga Strong. Don’t have a sandbag? No sweat; grab a light backpack filled with books instead.
Stand with left foot behind right. Raise your arms and reach forward over your right leg until your torso is parallel to the floor. Lower your left hand to your right foot. Too hard? Place your hand on a block. Hold for 30 seconds; do 3 reps per side.
Curtsy with Rotation
Stand with a sandbag at your chest. Take a crossover step back with your left foot, then bend at the knees and hips. Rotate your torso to the right. Stand up; do 8-10 reps per side.
Single-Leg Row Hold
Stand with a sandbag in your right hand, right foot off the floor. Tilt your torso forward until it’s parallel to the floor. Row the sandbag to your chest. Hold 20 seconds; do 3 reps per side.