Along with a powerful core, you need strong arms in order realize yoga's advanced arm balances and inversions. People often ask me how to improve their arm strength in preparation for these poses. The great news is, you don't have to start lifting weights or doing pull-ups. Just keep doing yoga regularly and you will build up the muscles you need by the time you are ready to try these poses. Here's a look at the types of weight-bearing poses you can do along the way.
Downward Facing Dog - Adho Muhka Svanasana
More good news: one of the poses that you do most frequently in yoga classes is also one of the best ways to improve your arm strength. Although it's true that in order to make downward facing dog a resting pose, it's necessary to support most of your weight with your legs, there's no getting around the fact that your arms are working hard too.
Plank is often called the first arm balance in yoga. Though your feet are still on the ground in this pose, the majority of your weight is in your arms. Keep your shoulders safe by fine-tuning your alignment. Your shoulders should be directly over your wrists. Try to create a straight line from the crown of your head to your heels so that you are neither raising your butt nor allowing it to hang down.
Side Plank Variations - Vasisthasana Variations
Full side plank, in which you balance on one arm and the edge of one foot is more of an intermediate pose (see below), but there are several variations that are appropriate for beginners.
Crow Pose - Bakasana
Crow is often the first arm balance that yoga students tackle. Learning it is really more about finding your center of gravity than anything else. (Hint: it's probably a little further forward than you would like it to be, but not so much that you fall on your face.) (Another hint: set up a crash pad of pillows under your face just in case.)
Four Limbed Staff Pose - Chaturanga Dandasana
Doing a lot of chaturangas (yoga's version of push-ups) is one of the best ways to build your arm strength. It's important to do them with good alignment, however, to avoid shoulder injuries. It's also necessary to know when to say when, since sloppy alignment leading to injury is more likely to happen when you are tired. If you take a class with lots of vinyasas, know that you can always opt to skip them when you feel your form is slipping.
Side Plank Pose - Vasisthasana
Side planks are great for working on one arm at a time. As you confidence grows, you can begin to play with lifting your top leg off the bottom one.
Upward Facing Dog - Urdhva Muhka Svanasana
Since you thighs are off the floor in this pose, it's also a workout for your arms. Usually upward dog is not held for a long time in yoga classes, but you can do a longer hold at home. Just make sure to bend your elbows and roll your shoulders back and down when you first come into the pose.
Firefly Pose - Tittibhasana
Once you get a handle on your first arm balance (for instance, crow, above), the rest come relatively easily. However, you do need to build up the strength to support your body's weight with just your arms.
Flying Crow Pose - Eka Pada Galavasana
Flying crow combines the legs of pigeon with the arms of crow. Extending your leg in the back is a little tricky. I think it's easier to get into the arm balance with your back leg bend under your body and then extend it, rather than to try to lift your back leg off the floor when it's already straight.
Handstand - Adho Mukha Vrksasana
Most people learn handstand at the wall first, which is a good way to build arm strength. Make sure to keep your arms very straight when you are kicking up so that they don't buckle.
Side Crow Pose - Parsva Bakasana
There are actually two versions of side crow. At first, try balancing with your butt resting on one arm and your knees on the other. Eventually, you can try it using just one arm, which supports your butt.
Wheel Pose - Urdhva Dhanurasana
There's a lot going on in a full wheel, not the least of which is that it takes a good amount of arm strength to push yourself up and hold that position.
Check out our 10-pose yoga workout for arms, featuring even more poses.