The key area of my teaching comes from a point of safety, and I have developed a technique of working with strength in asana to protect the body from stress.
Why do we even consider using strength? Afterall, yoga is all about stretching, becoming more supple and flexible, and ultimately relaxing and letting go.
Let me start with a quote. I'm sure most of you have come across or are even lucky enough to own the Himalyayan Institute publication by David Coulter Anatomy of Hatha Yoga. under the heading Building Foundations, he writes: 'To strenghten...in preparation for more demanding work with postures, concentrate at first on toughening up joint capsules, tendons, ligaments. The practical method for accomplishing these aims is to build strength, and to do this from t he inside out, starting with the central muscles of the torso and then moving from there to the extremities. Aches and pains frequently develop if you attempt extreme stretches before you have first developed the strength and skill to protect the all-important joints. Unless you a re already a weightlifter or body builder, stretching and beceming flexible should be a secondary concern.'
We need to have the necessary strength to support the joints. Another question: How many yoga teachers or experienced yoga students do you know with injuries? As a DCT, I obviously work a lot with yoga teachers. In other words, those who have regular yoga practice. Over the years, I have been surprised to find how many of them have problems with shoulders, necks, lower back and knees in particular. Does this sound familiar? I look at the posture work of those experienced yogis with such problems and admire their beautiful flexibility, but when asked to use strength, I find they struggle. Their flexibility is not balanced with an equal amount of strength. Consequently, some yogis find it challenging to hold a posture where certain key muscles are contracting to maintain the position. So the root cause of neck or shoulder problems, for example, may be lack of strength in certain muscles necessary to support particular postures. In my experience, yoga teachers and seasoned practitioners are usually incredibly flexible but sometimes, not so strong. Muscles have learnt to lengthen but they have not learnt to shorten.
I have been lucky enought to work with the very experienced American teacher, Tias Little, and he writes: 'Students with a lot of mobility may be unstable in ther joints.... For people who fall into this category, their yoga practice should focus on building greater stability around the joints, rather than straining and ultimately injuring them. This is done primarily by practising poses that put weight on the hyper-mobile joint, and then strengthening the tissue (tendons, ligaments, and muscle) that surrounds it.'
In our yoga practice, we should aim to develop muscle strength in key areas where muscles are designed to be strong and often are not. If they are not strong, in our efforts to stretch and become flexible, we weaken the joints.
I am also very keen a analyze how we move in and out of postures and how we can do this in the safest way. Usually in yoga we spend time in postures, adjusting this and that, moving this way and that way. We move in the postures thinking often of the breath but not of which muscles can take us safely into the postures. And more importantly, particularly in the standing postures, which muscles should take us out of postures when gravity is against us.
We must consider the muscles that we need to engage to move us into and out of postures.
The beauty of using strength in this way is that it allows us to be even safer in postures.
Once we being to work with strength in our asana practice we find ourselves moving away from the physical to consider strength of mind. A necessary ingredient for progressing in our work with physical strength is mental discipline. Tapas. Working with strength in asana can be challenging. When we first experience using strength it is exciting, empowering. However, there will be times when we may feel deeply frustrated or discouraged by our lack of physical strength - it's intense stuff! So working with strength in asana is a perfect route to experience Tapas; to practice persistence in the face of challenge, as well as non-attachment to the fruits of our labour. The inspirational Anusara yoga teacher Denise Benitez reminds us:
'Think of strength as not only muscular, but also as a resource inside yourself, an inner reservoir of power in your heart. When the muscles of your outer body are working in optimal balance with one another, you will have amazing access to this inner strength.'
I believe that in our enthusiasm to let go and undo in yoga, it is possible to overlook the energising, empowering and stregthening aspect of our practice and teaching, which is very much a part of the balance that is Hatha Yoga.