As soon as I think of strength and yoga, I think of my arms. My thoughts gravitate towards the many years it took for me to be able to support my body weight in chaturanga, shaking arms during downward dogs and trying to build strength by doing press-ups on my bedroom floor – one of my least favourite activities.
In physical terms, strength is beneficial. Building strength encourages the production of osteoblasts, bone producing cells which allow new bones to form, definitely an important consideration in terms of bone health. Strength can also have huge benefits for our ability to prevent and fight illness. It has been widely claimed that the stronger our muscles, the stronger our immune system. Therefore it is our muscles that we will rely on when we get sick and are in need of reserves.
But is strength really that important in yoga? If what we are trying to cultivate is a more grounded, compassionate version of ourselves with an intention to focus on the inward journey, then why does it matter if we can hold chaturanga or if we have to put our knees on the ground? So much of the thought surrounding yoga too often becomes centred on the physical aspect, and if we are not careful can make us feel that we are always aspiring to achieve an ultimate goal or to somehow improve and be better than the last practice. According to Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras, asana (postures) actually constitutes only one of the eight limbs of yoga and so when thinking about strength it is important that we look beyond the aesthetics.
Strength requires taking ourselves away from the busy and constant action of everyday life. It takes a pretty strong individual to sit with the thoughts and tune in to the signs and signals of how we are really feeling and what we are really experiencing rather than allow distractions to win. Strength is a journey. It requires time, patience, focus, motivation and perseverance and it’s not always easy, even for those people who actually enjoy press ups. Cultivating strength requires one-pointedness attention, awareness of the breath and an honesty with ourselves about when is a good time to push, counteracting this with the phases of our lives when we need to rest, restore and recreate balance before maybe, we try again.
It can be through the practice of asana, whether strong or gentle, that allows us access to something beyond the physical body. After much self-enquiry, I’m fairly sure that my relationship with being strong plays out very clearly in other ways too. I often lack the strength and courage to speak confidently about the things which are important to me and I find it is an ongoing obstacle to propel myself out of my comfort zone which in turn, often prompts a negative thought pattern in my mind followed by a sense of guilt surrounding the fact that I feel as though I didn’t achieve what I set out to. Having a regular yoga practice has allowed me to observe these aspects of myself with honesty and clarity and it has been an interesting and prolonged journey. Through time and regular practice, my mind has recited the emotions of not being good enough and feeling weakness and I have felt the resistance in my body. I still remember being in a hot yoga class with tears of frustration because I couldn’t push up into a backbend and feeling immense relief that the studio was dark and that, given that it was hot, it would just look as though my tears were beads of sweat anyway. Some days I allowed these emotions in and gave myself time to rest and reflect and some days I felt something stronger within me and persisted. Actually this is still an ongoing process; one of simultaneously surrendering and persevering. It takes a lot of being truthful and a growing sense of awareness of body and emotions. It is okay to rest when you need to and to push when it feels right, in all senses of the words.
So enjoy the journey, be where you are; whether that is different, the same or less than the time before, and smile. Smiling definitely makes holding plank easier 🙂