Strength v. force. I am experiencing, as many of us, a shift in our world. It is very jarring to me to see the idolization of power, wealth, popularity, and external beauty. I know this is not new to us, but I feel it more evident. What am I to do with all these external stimuli that may be affecting me, knowingly or unknowingly?
Of course, my personal answer lies on my personal experience. What tools do I have to support my balance? I value the physical experience of my yoga practice that allows me to understand my emotional and spiritual practice in a deeper way. I need the mindfulness of the movement, to bring my attention to my body, to take it away from other external and internal stimuli. It is through my body and its reaction to movement that I may process my (unveiled) emotions and thoughts. It is through my body that I bring my distracted mind back into the moment. It is through this practice I feel my juices (endocrine system) moving and bringing a deeper sense of harmony (homeostasis), and it is through my body I can stretch and expand my thinking. My body helps me experience (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual) health in a holistic way (moving meditation). One huge component of this is understand my strength versus forcing my body.
Although all exercises in yoga are an expression of strength, including and especially breathing. I tend to think of core exercise as the ones that help support the rest of the body. What are the core muscles? There are many, not just our abdominals (oh infamous and elusive 6 pack). There are also the obliques, lower back, gluteus, pelvic floor muscles. All have the intent of stabilizing my midbody. This stabilization has repercussions on the limb position and strength, shoulders, and neck/head area.
One simple, and sometimes dreaded exercise that emphasizes the collaborative work of our core is plank. Some considerations on this position is understanding the limitations of the body. Strength is not found, it is developed. Starting gently, short period of time, and gradually increasing intensity and time, is the best way to reach a stronger posture (and body). This is will avoid injury, sometimes related to the perfect example of forcefulness.
Some considerations for this asana are:
- Engage the core muscles. To reach this pose, we activate the glutes, abdomen, and back muscles. It also involves thighs and arm muscles. The more we active each muscle group, the easier to support the body weight collaboratively.
- Placement of hands, aligning the hands under the shoulders. Sometimes it feels better to have farther forward than closer into the body. The fingers need to be active and pressed to the mat (as if squeezing a large orange). However, the root of the fingers (insertion into the palms) needs to be fully supported. The heel of the hands lighter on the ground. This is attained by opening a pinky finger away from the thumb, and vice versa. The index finger lengthens forward on the mat, to give direction to the arm. All these will prevent joints from over-extend. The joints have not only muscles holding together, but also ligaments. Ligaments are stringy, the tissue connecting the bones (joint). These also need time to strengthen and adapt to movement.
- Arms awareness. The arms need to be distributing the weight into the hands and upper body. The elbows are, especially at the beginning, slightly bend and unlocked. This will activate the triceps and shoulders. The crease of the elbows might better serve the joints (wrist, elbow, and shoulder) by looking into each other.
- Shoulder. The shoulder also a particularly important joint (muscles, tendons, and ligaments). The shoulders might better be served by being exactly outside the chest, not under or behind. This will bring in the abdomen and chest, in the front, and upper back muscles, to gather and alleviate pressure solely on the shoulder.
- The head. We tend to lift the head and look forward. This will only shorten muscles on the back of the neck and create unnecessary tension in it. The top of the head (crown) points forward, intending to align the spine and legs, in a single plank (long wood).
- Time. Avoiding any hard rules here, as in much of yoga practice. If practicing on our own, it takes about 18 secs for the brain to respond and connect to your muscles. This may mean 6 to 8 breaths. And we want to repeat this more than once. It is appropriate to do it 3 to 6 reps of 6 to 8 breaths each rep.
- Advancing forward. Once our limbs, joints, and core muscles feel stronger, then we could attempt chaturanga dandasana (low plank), where torso lowers at most elbow height.
Again, as everything yoga related, less is more. We want to do it gently. Adapt as much as necessary, so our body advances at its own rate. Pain is always avoided. Patience is developed, one breath at a time.
Engaging my core, not only means to find my strength muscles in the midbody. This is a practice to hold my posture taller, sitting or standing. It is a way to look farther, breath deeper; it also allows my vertebrae (back bones) to let reciprocally more fully and freely communicate through the nerves on the spine, from brain to body, and body to brain. Rediscovering our core is practicing finding our strength.
Strength is not only of the body; is all the steps it takes to make the conscious decision to get there. These are skills. These skills teach me to be humble. To learn to control what is at my reach, gently. It teaches me to focus inwardly, so every thought, every word, every step becomes stronger. It allows me enough room to refocus my energy into what really matters, the strength to walk the challenging path of spiritual life.
If I am practicing strength, especially spiritually, I will be able to naturally be stronger. The external environment will not affect me as deeply. I will be able to find strength in my spirit, as it only searches for Happiness. Happiness is only found in my relationship with my whole. My strength I will be reminded comes from being part and parcel of the Love, or God. Not only I, but we all are.