Yoga makes you strong!
For one reason or another, I have continued to reflect lately on Yogi Hari and his ashram. I have a friend and colleague who also lived at Yogi Hari’s, and we’ve reminisced a few times, sharing stories and quotes from our time there. I’ve toyed with the idea of returning to visit, and wonder if Yogi Hari would ever forgive me for doing both Ashtanga and Iyengar Yoga. He was not fond of either system, and I can still hear the disdain in his voice as he grumbled, “Ashtanga yoga, jumping yoga, rajastic yoga, not teaching pranayama, what kind of stupidity is that?” I’m sure I’ll return at some point and just accept my scolding.
But this essay is not about Yogi Hari, or anything he said. This essay is inspired by something his wife Tara said to us twice a day. If Yogi Hari’s role was that of the archetypical stern father figure, Tara’s role was the compassionate and nurturing mother. When Yogi Hari would break us down, and attempt to “iron out our problems,” Tara was always there to pick up the pieces. Tara was also responsible for cooking all of the meals served at the ashram. Twice a day, Tara would prepare a delicious (gluten free, vegetarian) sattvic meal for us.
Before eating, we would stand in a circle, hold hands, and Tara would lead us through a chant, paying respects to Yogi Hari and his lineage of teachers. At the end of the chant, Tara would always add, “yoga makes you strong!” This would start the meal on a light note, and it always made some of the students laugh. Sounds simple enough -- but I like to read into things; I like to analyze and interpret. Why did she choose the word "strong"? And what kind of strength was she referring to? Physical strength? Mental and emotional strength? Spiritual strength? All of the above? Maybe in twenty years I’ll have some insights on spiritual strength, but for the time being I’ll stick to the physical realm.
To many, the word “yoga” is synonymous with stretching, and is an activity done to increase range of motion, not increase strength. Even among yoga practitioners and teachers, there is often an over emphasis on increasing flexibility. Strength building is, at best, an afterthought, and is sometimes even avoided. I recently met a well-known and respected yoga teacher who commented on my body and practice: You move so well for an Ashtanga practitioner; you guys tend to get muscle bound.” I’ve met muscle bound weight-lifters and triathletes who do yoga occasionally, but I’ve never met a muscle bound yoga practitioner who practices daily. My experience has mostly been the opposite. I often meet serious yoga practitioners whose bodies are hyper-mobile, but lack the strength for an integrated practice.
This overemphasis on flexibility at the expense of strength is completely backwards. If you come to yoga practice with the intention to get flexible, that intention will color each and every movement you perform on the mat. As this intention to get “loose” informs yoga practice, practitioners allow their flexibility to lead their movement. This moving from a place of flexibility and not from a place of strength leads to a sloppy practice, and also puts more wear and tear on connective tissues, and joints. Over time, this flopping around and hanging on the joints can lead to injury, and certainly limits improvement and progress.
Increased range of motion and flexibility is inevitable with consistent yoga practice, the system is simply designed to make you limber. Building strength is unfortunately not inevitable, and requires a shift of focus and constant awareness. In every pose and transition, you must ask yourself, what is supporting me? Where am I initiating movement from? It is the ability to have your strength support you, and initiate your movement, that will develop a safe and balanced practice.
Yoga is somewhat unique in its ability to simultaneously increase both strength and range of motion. As the body becomes stronger and better able to support itself in a posture, the range of motion of that posture can increase. This cycle can more or less repeat itself indefinitely, but it takes both parts: strength and flexibility, Ha-tha, yin/yang. So much of “alignment” in asana practice is simply having the correct muscles supporting you in a posture. More often than not, correct alignment requires more muscular activity, not less.
My Ashtanga teacher Randy Aromando once told me, “you have to ask the right questions to get the right answers.” A question I ask myself often in my asana practice is, “How can I get stronger in this position?” Sometimes the answer is straightforward. For example, bringing more work to the hands and feet in downward facing dog instantly creates a feeling of muscular activity to the entire body. Other times it is less clear. How do you get stronger sitting in lotus pose? And the trickiest, the most important question: “how can I build this strength and stay relaxed?”
When I first started practicing with Randy, he would constantly bark at me, “Breathe into your chest! No belly breathing! Breathe through your nose!” And he would repeatedly recite Pattabhi Jois quotes on breathing: “belly breathing, hernia is coming.” It took me a while to realize it, but he was cueing me to get stronger. This chest breathing in increasingly difficult positions was reinforcing the shape of uddiyana bandha and training the musculature of inhalation and exhalation. Many of the muscles that assist forced inhalation and forced exhalation are buzzword muscles: the diaphragm, the psoas, serratus anterior, transverse abdominis, and the pelvic floor.
In my experience, this breathing plays an integral role in building strength in yoga practice in a relaxed way. Deep, slow, and relaxed chest breathing (ujjai) activates deep muscles bottom to top, from the pelvic floor to the soft palate. As this style of breathing becomes natural and not forced, the nervous system “softens” and the practitioner becomes relaxed despite performing difficult activities. We take hundreds of breaths in each practice. Can each inhale create strength, and can each exhale cultivate softness?
The breath is said to be the road between the body and soul, and is used in many contemplative traditions, and techniques. Perhaps over time this deep, conscious breathing is meant to strengthen us mentally, emotionally and spiritually as well. One of my favorite definitions of yoga is simply breathing. If we define yoga in this way, yoga makes you strong; breathing makes you strong.
Asana Sequence 3/29/15 - Modified second half of Ashtanga Intermediate Series
Surya Namaskara A (Sun Salute A) - Repeat 3 - 5x. Hold down dog for 5 - 10 breaths.
Surya Namaskara B (Sun Salute B) - Repeat 3 - 5x. Hold down dog for 5 - 10 breaths.
Vrksasana - Tree Pose
Utthita Trikonasana - Extended Triangle Pose
Parivrtta Trikonasana - Revolved Triangle Pose
Utthita Parsvakonasana - Extended Side Angle Pose
Ardha Chnadrasana - Half Moon Pose
Prasarita Padottanasana A - Stretched Intense Foot Pose A (Wide leg fold - hands to floor)
Prasarita Padottanasana C - Stretched Intense Foot Pose C (Wide leg fold - hands interlaced)
Utkatasana - Fierce Pose (Chair)
Ardha Matsyendrasana 1 - Half Lord of Fish Pose 1. (L) heel outside of (R) hip. (R) foot outside of (L) thigh, twist (R.) Change sides
Ardha Matsyendrasana 2 - Half Lord of Fish Pose 2 - (R) leg half lotus or Janu Sirsasana, (L) leg straight, twist (L) and possible bind on (R) shin.
Malasana - Garland pose (Squat with feet together, fold forward)
Bakasana or Bhujapidasana or Tittibhasana - Crow pose, arm pressure pose, insect pose
Baddha Konasana - Bound Angle Pose (Butterfly) Do as extension and flexion.
Upavista Konasana A - Seated Angle Pose A (Seated wide leg forward fold) - Do as extension and flexion. Hold outer feet.
Vasisthasana 1 - Pose dedicated to the sage Vasistha (side plank) - Press whole sole of bottom foot into floor to create lift in side waist. Hand and foot must be in line.
Nakrasana - Crocodile Pose. Do forearm plank as alternate.
Parighasana - Iron Bar Pose (Ashtanga version) - (R) leg in Virasana (hero) and (L) leg extends laterally as in Upavista Konasana, form a 90 degree angle between (R) and (L) legs. Change sides. Do Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana if Virasana is unavailable.
Gomukasana - Cow Face Pose - Do legs and arms.
Chatush Padasana - Four Foot Pose (Bridge) Do 3 times. palms to floor, hands interlaced, holding ankles. Can also be done as a restorative pose with block (tallest setting) under sacrum.
Urdhva Dhanurasana - Upward Bow Pose (Wheel) Enter from Chatush Padasana holding ankles.
To work deeper in Urdhva Dhanurasana--
Exhale: Bend elbows and touch head to floor.
Inhale: Straighten arms lifting back to wheel. 5 Breaths.
Repeat this action 3 to 5 times. The movement resembles a push up in wheel.
After bridge and/or wheel - Do Ardha Jathara Parivartanasana (twist on back) as needed THEN forward fold in Paschimottanasana (straight leg forward fold) or Adho Mukha Virasana (child’s pose.)
If you perform Sirsasana and/or Sarvangasana (headstand and/or shoulderstand) do them now.
Sukhasana/Padmasana - Sweet Pose/Lotus Pose - Cross legs and fold forward. Rest head on floor or block.
Savasana - Corpse Pose. Take rest for at least 5 minutes.