Strength in Our Yoga Practice

Many people search for strength from their yoga practice but the pursuit of strength is one sided and cannot lead to a wholesome yoga practice. In fact it is not yoga at all.

In Chinese philosophy yin and yang is a symbol that shows how two apparently opposite forces are in fact interconnected. The black and the white of yin-yang are endlessly entwined and each is inhabited by the other in the form of a dot of the opposite colour. Therefore, it shows how the existence of any one reality or concept automatically implies its opposite and indeed necessitates it as they are interdependent and complementary parts of a whole. So we cannot speak of something without implying its opposite, and depending on it to create wholesomeness.

'Strength' is a good example of this; it is generally considered a positive attribute whereas on the other side we perceive the negative one of weakness. Where we are not strong we imagine we are weak and in yoga practice this encourages people who fear weakness to overwork and overstrain their bodies from the desire to be strong. Instead of weakness we should think of softness, receptiveness and ability to let go. In fact we will see that in order to create a wholesome practice we must embrace these qualities and that without so doing, focus on strength will only ever bring more imbalance.

Yoga is a path of equilibrium and so to pursue strength from yoga practice is imbalanced as it is only one side of the whole. Furthermore an over-abundance of strength in one area of the body implies weakness in another because if we overwork and become strong in one area of the body it will be at the cost of another as we lose the body's balance. Strength also brings tensions, tension lacks softness and becomes tight and brittle and then becomes a potential weak spot and prone to injury. In this way our strength can become our weakness. To take this example further we can see that where we become strong we take pride, we identify. When we suffer injury to our pride we are devastated and feel we have lost everything. But this is not us. This is identification with our strengths that causes solidification of our ego structure. The more established our ego structure the more easily it can be bruised and even shattered. Our strength can thus be our downfall.

On the other hand, we also suffer when we focus too much on our weaknesses. We associate lack of strength with weakness and perceive this negatively. Negative associations, just like positive ones, solidify and become part of the ego structure. We continue to think we are weak and cannot do something and so we perpetuate living within our self-imposed limitations. So focusing too much on either our strengths or weaknesses encourages reification of the ego structure.

Ha and Tha can be considered the Indian equivalent of yang and yin. Ha signifies the active masculine energy of the sun and Tha the reflective feminine quality of the moon. If we act too much we burn out and lose capacity for reflection and if we do too little we may become lethargic and indeed weak. Correct yoga practice encourages balance. It teaches us to observe and accept our bodies and minds so that we can tame our strengths, love our weaknesses and so move beyond ego identification with any one aspect of our practice.

Clearly, there are some areas in yoga practice and in certain postures where strength is required - in our thigh muscles for example - but the strength is happening, we do not force it by clenching, tightening or even paying it our attention. Other poses require strength of will, in shoulder stand we make a strong decision not to move out of the pose. If we focus on the action we physically solidify the poses and mentally 'ego-ify' them. This is not yoga. Focusing on discomfort felt in the active muscles and keeping strong determination can bring tension to the face. Yoga should be practiced with no unnecessary excess of effort so for this reason we keep our attention on maintaining softness in the areas that are relaxed - face, abdomen and breath for example. This keeps our mind, judgment and ego down and encourages wholesomeness of yoga practice. It also prevents us identifying with the discomfort and making negative associations in more challenging poses.

So within the poses we balance action and non-action and within the practice we do the same; active poses are balanced with relaxing ones. When we are full of fire we ground and cool ourselves and when we are sluggish we use our practice to energise us. We practise in tune with nature's rhythms; the weather, the moon, our moods and energy levels, working on the whole of the body to achieve holistic results. Our yoga practice embraces these opposites to help us harmonise the equilibrium.

When your yoga practice is truly aligned with nature and our own needs, both general and specific to the present moment, it is balanced and it is true ha-tha yoga practice. Coming into alignment with and through your practice and bringing your practice in line with the universe brings alignment into your body. Once balance and alignment are achieved the desire for strength becomes redundant and even undesirable as we realise the imbalance it brings. Just as yin and yang complement and complete one another, so too do ha and tha. Strength must be balanced in order to be beneficial for the body, mind and spirit. True strength can only be realised when opposites are embraced in the whole practice and within each pose to the point when they become one and the same and the opposites cease to exist. Like yin and yang ha and tha cannot exist to their highest potential without the presence of the other and it is the job of our yoga practice to create this union in order to be our highest selves.

Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Centre
Maria Chandler

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