Yoga has been taught in the East for thousands of years. Initially, the physical practice began as an outgrowth, for the body, of the work being done to strengthen the mind. As Yoga moved west, and has gained in popularity exponentially , the physical practice of Yoga has gained millions of “regular people” followers, myself included. I came to Yoga after years of step aerobics, dance aerobics, Jane Fonda aerobics, aerobics with weights, aerobics with giant bouncing balls. If there was plate twirling monkey aerobics, I probably would have tried that too ! However, Yoga taught me that not every form of exercise has to have a ‘gimmick’.
I usually teach four classes per week, and the focus of each of these programs is the balance between flexibility and strength. I encourage my students to build up their core muscles in their abdomen and backs. This will help improve their posture and their overall strength and fitness. Plus, they will, as I have, simply begin to feel healthier, with a stronger core. Additionally, I encourage strength in the upper body, which is notoriously weak for most women. Many of us have strong legs, but our upper body tends to dwindle over the years. In my own case, I have no memory of ever having a strong upper half. I remember hanging helplessly in the “Presidential Physical Fitness test” from the monkey bars in 6th grade, with a sadistic PE teacher embarrasingly shouting “You can’t even do ONE pull up ?”, as he scribbled a big red F in my little square box on his sheet. If I believed in the 9 circles of Hell, as written in Dante’s Inferno, I’d have to reserve the 8th circle (reserved for those sowers of discord and betrayers of children) for PE teachers from the 1970’s. Perhaps it’s in reaction to my own experience being mocked, but I’ve worked very diligently at helping others gain upper body strength. Lower body strength is also gained in Yoga, in bringing about balance between the two halves of our form.
One of the best known Yoga poses is “Downward Facing Dog”. In this wonderful pose, one is able to strengthen and stretch both the upper and lower parts of the body. Hamstrings, Achilles tendons and Trapezius muscles are opened up. Triceps, Biceps, Deltoids and low back muscles are strengthened. Once a student gets over her initial reaction of “Really ? You want me to shine my tush in the air ?”, she realizes the benefits of this pose.
Strength without flexibility isn’t much good for anyone, however. Think of the body builders who have huge muscles, but no range of mobility. Can they touch their toes, or reach their arms to touch clasp hands behind their backs ? Unlikely….as many focus on strength and strength alone. Flexibility is key. When your muscles are strong and flexible, you have much less risk of injury, and your overall fitness will be greater. It’s the metaphor of the Oak tree and the Willow: The Oak tree stands firm and stout, but when the wind comes, it has no flexibility and can crack in half. The Willow tree may not have as solid a core trunk, but as the wind comes, it is more adaptable to blowing along with the direction of the wind, rather than breaking.
Yoga’s roots, however, are not in the body, but of the mind. Even after all this discussion about the physical benefits of Yoga, the true and deep meaning comes to our very nature, inside our hearts and spirits. It’s of vital importance that we develop strong minds. We need to know ourselves, as well to develop our morality, our sense of values and our own innate being. We need to completely ‘fit’ in our convictions and our determination to “live out the life we have chosen” (according to Thoreau). But, strength and conviction without flexibility means that our beliefs can be broken in the “wind”. This isn’t to say that we need to allow our moral compass to be blown in any direction. People without a ‘center’ tend to flit whichever way those around them lead. Rather, flexibility implies a willingness to listen, to be accepting of other people’s opinions and to be able to work through differences into compromise. This is not a weakness. Instead, it’s using our own strength wisely, and with flexibility to appreciate diversity.
If we can cultivate both strength and flexibility in both body and mind, we’ll be much better equipped to deal with anything that comes our way. And, we’ll feel better about it too.