This blog post dives into the nuance of strength and the various yogic practices that can help you cultivate this trait within yourself.
In the early days of my yoga practice, every time I unfurled my yoga mat and took a seat - I almost never thought about the emotional strength it took to show up, time and time again. I seemed to only focus on the physical strength I hoped to build by pushing my body beyond its capabilities - with little to no compassion. This common mindset was likely the genesis of my psychosomatic dissonance, which my now intentional yoga practice has healed.
I started my research for this blog post thinking about the many variations of strength. There's power, resistance, resilience, influence and force - just to name a few.
Most of us are told that strength is born out of hardship. That is true on some levels. But if you ask me - strength is cultivated and amplified during the “in-between'' period, when we reflect on what's happened, and absorb the lessons to be applied next time.
A few years ago I went down a rabbit hole on the physiology of strength training and came across a critical piece of information. In order to build new muscle and thereby increase your strength, you must subject your existing muscles to a great deal of strain, so that they rip apart and make space for new fibers to grow. You then had to supplement your diet and lifestyle accordingly to build new muscle and not lose your progress.
What would happen if we applied the same thinking towards utilizing yoga to build strength - not only in our bodies, but also in our hearts?
Through an unrelenting devotion to our Tapas (self-discipline - the first of five Niyamas, the limb of yoga about internal observances) we can alchemize static strength into dynamic resilience. This is the kind of strength that will never atrophy, and stays with us for life.
Create safety in your body
Consider the mantra “sthiram sukham asanam.” This verse is identified in the text The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a body of philosophy about the yogic path. Sthiram sukham asanam highlights the importance of finding both steadiness and comfort in our āsana (third limb of yoga - posture) practice. Today, yoga = āsana = vinyasa. Due to commercialization, we are many, many steps removed from the origins of this limb. Posture has become synonymous with Power. We hike up our heart rate in favor of burning calories and engage our muscles in the name of building strength, but what are we forgetting along the way? Our spiritual growth comes not from the development of muscle fibers or the loss of fat cells…it comes from our ability to create safety within our body.
In your next āsana practice, evaluate your reason for pushing your body to express posture a certain way. Is it your body's intuition, or is it born out of a desire to mimic or even 'outdo' the person next to you? I invite you to discover the threshold of challenging yourself before it becomes harmful.
Stay present with yourself
Speaking of harm, recall the last time you were cued into a posture that you didn't have much experience with. Did you force a contortion and feel signals of confusion, resistance or even pain echo throughout your body? Or did you practice a variation that allowed you to experience steadiness and breathe with ease?
I would be remiss if I did not bring up a) svadhyāya (self-study - the fourth of five Niyamas, the limb of yoga about internal observances) and b) ahimsa (non-violence - the first of five Yamas, the limb of yoga about external ethics). One practice can truly beget the other.
As you move through postures on your mat, try staying connected to yourself. Make it the utmost priority. Notice what happens when you are so present that you no longer know what's coming next. We've all been there - that moment in class when the teacher takes too long to cue the next posture so we go ahead and take ourselves there. Perhaps we have different reasons - discomfort, impatience, and so on. All I need from you is to never leave yourself during the process. This is svadhyāya in motion.
You may notice during this self-study whether you are truly steady in a posture or if you are forcing it. To the point that you hold your breath for fear of letting the sensation of harm rise to the surface - where you can no longer ignore it. This is where ahimsa comes in.
Use props like an extension of your body - because that's exactly what they are. They exist to steady you and create enough space in and around your body, so you can breathe. What's more peaceful than that?
Connect to your life energy
I'm going to let you in on something. Strength is really about capacity. What is your capacity to contend with discomfort - be it emotional, mental or physical? What is your capacity for humility in the face of ego death?
Research has shown us that when we are threatened in some way, the first thing to change (even before our thoughts!) is our breath. The breath sets the tone for our energy. In an evolutionary sense, breath is physiologically connected to our fight or flight instinct. It literally gives us the roadmap on how to stay alive. In modern times we still live under very real physical threats, but now with the addition of invisible psychological threats, often of our own making.
Prānāyāmā is commonly likened to breathwork. While not entirely accurate, I don't consider it a malicious appropriation but rather a simple misunderstanding. Breath is the conduit for our prānā - a life force energy that animates us from the inside out. We breathe with various mechanics in order to 1) engage our oxygen supply 2) increase prānā and 3) deploy both to heal our body. When we become weaker through illness, stress and anxiety, or other energy-draining situations, it's safe to say our prānā is in low supply.
Intentional breathing increases our capacity for self-compassion and discipline, both instrumental in building inner and outer strength. The rush of additional oxygen to our blood circulation can equip the nervous system to withstand even more pressure - allowing us to push our boundaries safely and evolve as needed.
A final thought
Yoga is a technology that offers us countless paths towards spiritual and physical betterment - or, as some call it strength. In order for any of the above suggestions to work for you, your mind has to know that you believe in and accept yourself. Without acknowledgement of how far we've come, there is no future growth. Know that the journey to true strength is always self-guided, and our self-compassion is the ultimate compass. Safe travels!To learn more from Divya, follow her here.