Often when I talk to people about yoga they say that they've tried it, or would like to, but they aren't flexible. This perception of having to be flexible before coming to yoga always makes me smile. Flexibility may come with physical practice, but some of us will always be "stiffies", which is fine. More important than flexibility, I say, is stability! We become stable by building our strength and resolve. Strength and stability are the foundation for a safe and life-long practice.
Strength in our society has become synonymous with big muscles. We are inundated by images of ripped men and women in all sorts of publications (including yoga publications!) and popular culture that perpetuate the cult of the body beautiful. But strength is much more than musculature. The systems of the physical body must be healthy and work well to be strong. Prana, life-force, must move through the body unimpeded for us to really be strong. The mind has to be open, to see new things and make decisions that are helpful, not harmful, to be strong. The breath must be smooth and steady to be strong. When these aspects of ourselves work well together we build indomitable will and are able to excel in life. That to me is what strength is.
This week I've been asking students what makes us strong? And how can we use yoga to be strong?
To answer the first question I'd say that diet is of fundamental importance to strength. Nutrition and what we digest is definitely challenging now as food has less vitality than it once did. The saying "You are what you eat" rings true. If we fill our guts with chemical-laden foods and trans fats, eat bad food combinations and have irregular eating times, if we continually over-eat or under-eat, if we aren't eating whole foods, then we definitely are not building strength. Creating healthy eating routines and diets is the most effective way to build a stronger body and mind. Some supplementation may be necessary, but studies have found that the majority of supplements end up passing through the body. Try to get as much vitamin and nutrient intake from whole foods.
As our eating improves our digestive and eliminative systems get stronger. However, it is not just food that we digest; we digest our surroundings. What we digest on a mental level impacts our strength and stability in life. We can choose to be in environments that are over-stimulating or are peaceful. We can watch movies that are loaded with violence and gore or choose something more soothing. We can blare music loudly on our commute or we can choose silence and contemplation. We can be around people whose energy drains us and make us unhappy or we can stay away. We can choose to sleep late and rush out the door with wet hair and toast in hand or we can get up and do our practice including meditation and start our day from there.
When we make choices that allow the mind to be more quiet and less stimulated, the mind will reward us by being more clear so that we will make choices the serve us, rather than out of habit and routine. A huge part of being strong is mind-related. Our attitude about life, about who we are, about what our possibilities are stem from the state of our mind and the choices we make.
Being strong in our society is focused almost exclusively on the physical so naturally we engage in physical activities to build strength. While there is nothing wrong with physical activity, when we approach it with a tenacity - a gripping - that is imbalanced it becomes unhealthy. Many of us drive our bodies so hard - including over-doing yoga asana - and forget, or don't know, that part of being strong is giving the body periods of rest and relaxation. Establishing regular sleep patterns is key - the majority of us can't sleep through the night - but so is building in periods of deep relaxation. The more we can create space for the mind and the body to be still the stronger we become.
So diet - not just what but how we eat - our surroundings, and rest and relaxation are the fundamentals of being strong, not simply having bulging muscles.
And how do we use yoga to get strong?
Asana is the obvious first step. There are many poses that build physical strength in the limbs, torso, back, shoulders, neck. The poses of yoga help our musculoskeletal body to strengthen. They help the nervous system to become more balanced and stronger. They help the circulatory and respiratory systems to work more efficiently. Asana help the endocrine system to function well. When the body's systems are working optimally then we are strong.
(Here I add in my usual commentary that asana are NOT going to have these effects universally. It depends on how they are taught/used. Some approaches will actually further deplete us, ignoring the body's need for rest and stillness.)
With yoga augment asana with techniques like agni sara (squeezing and releasing of the abdominal wall) which on a gross level gets the digestive tract working better and on a more subtle level stokes our transformational fire. Kapalbhati (pumping breath focusing on an intense exhalation) is a great way to detoxify the system. Jal neti (nasal cleanse) gets our nasal passages and the tissues most closely connected to the third eye-centre healthy and strong. We strengthen through the deep relaxation of savasana (corpse pose) at the end of physical practice. We regularly use yoga nidra (a deep relaxation known as yogic sleep) to restore and replenish. And ultimately we strengthen the mind in daily meditation.
An integrated approach using the wisdom, techniques and teaching of yoga in combination with dietary and lifestyle choices determine our strength. We must never forget that rest, relaxation and restoration are essential. I often advise students who are struggling that yoga sometimes means not doing yoga, that is going to classes, but giving yourself time to rest and heal.
Using yoga practice to build strength - in the broadest sense of the word - will help us to take on the daily challenges that life presents us with grace, steadiness and equanimity.