Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Strength & Flexibility On and Off the Yoga Mat

Strength & Flexibility On and Off the Yoga Mat
How Our Alignment and Conduct On the Yoga Mat Translates to Alignment and Conduct Off the Yoga Mat

When I was completing my 200-hour certification at the Yoga Teachers Training Institute in Queens, NY, Ma Mokshapriya Shakti consistently had to remind me to slightly tuck my chin keep my cervical spine in alignment with the rest of my spine, to keep both of my feet firmly grounded in standing postures, to keep my torso centered in each pose, to find and commit to a drishti (a gazing point). If your feet are not planted, you do not have a strong foundation. If you are leaning back, you are in the past. If you are leaning forward, you are in the future. If you are straining the back of the neck to keep the head lifted—rather than bowing down—you are fighting surrender and you are aiming to control too much. If your eyes are focused, your mind is focused. Not only was Mokshapriya desperately trying to teach me to adjust my alignment and form in my asanas (poses) on the mat, but she was also teaching me to adjust my attitude, my perspective, and to surrender to the present moment, off the mat.

I had often wondered about the parallels between how I conduct myself in my yoga practice and how I conduct myself in my day-to-day life: how my flat feet that frequently caused a shaky foundation could mirror my spiritual and emotional foundation; how my drifting center of gravity pulled me from the present moment; how keeping my head lifted kept negative, nervous, and controlling energy lifted; how my wandering eyes mirrored my inability to settle down, to concentrate, and to be satisfied with where I am at present and what I am doing at present.

During a particularly intensive day of laboring over one asana for long periods of time, I was alarmed and disarmed to discover myself so ill-equipped, so weak, and so incapable of holding the poses for long. I had previously imagined myself to be so gifted because I was naturally flexible and contorting my body into obscure shapes came easily. But feeling disastrously imbalanced in Extended Side Angle, I was confronted with weakness, slamming its head into mine, colliding with my Ego, unapologetically. I began to cry, not simply because I was amazed to unearth this Great Truth about my physical body, but because I felt emotionally weak, as though I was completely unprepared to handle myself in this vulnerable condition.
I later came to understand that my inherent flexibility was somewhat limiting my strength. Flexible people, apparently, need to work harder to develop the muscles necessary for holding poses, as our joints are often less stable because of the mobility. This makes me think about my flexibility beyond my physicality—that is, intellectually, emotionally, in my relationships. I always had the natural tendency to twist and turn myself to the satisfaction and accommodation of others, tending to bend (because if I don’t, I think I may break), instead of grounding myself and remaining stable. So I am doing nothing for developing strength by stretching myself beyond my limitations.

I am remarkably flexible but lacking in strength both on and off the mat, on a physical and emotional basis. Up until recently, I insisted to myself that there was nothing I could not accomplish by bringing my head to my feet in a perfect circle and no question I could not answer by curving my body into a question mark. But that’s useless to me if I don’t have the internal strength to hold myself up.

So the critical question is what to do about this shocking and sad discovery, this overwhelming truth that all of our muscles—including thee heart, so to speak—may not be what we had made them out to be. So we work from both directions, cultivating emotional strength while planting our feet solidly, finding ourselves firmly rooted in our poses to develop the physical strength to sustain ourselves. With growing pains and stretch marks from the arches of my feet to the crown of my head, each day is part of the process and we discover, it is the journey—not the destination—that matters most.