Strength in Ashtanga

Strength In Ashtanga Isn’t What You Think It Is

“Only when you can be extremely pliable and soft can you be extremely hard and strong” – Zen Proverb

Softness first

In 1975, Beryl Bender Birch connected her experience of the Ashtanga practice with this proverb so much that she used the idea expressed in the name for her yoga school. She called it the Hard and Soft Yoga Institute. Beryl was one of my early Ashtanga teachers and was also one of the earliest westerners to learn the Ashtanga practice. Even with a very athletic history, Beryl understood, after doing the Ashtanga practice, that here was something different. She was aware that in fact — in the Ashtanga practice — the softness had to come first.

When I started an Ashtanga practice I had a complicated relationship with the idea of strength. I had spent years, like most of generation X, being bombarded with media images of someone else’s idea of what strength looked like. It was usually presented from a western perspective of aggressive striving and entitlement. Cliches from the 1980’s gym culture still persist: “No pain, no gain.” “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” I’m sure you’ve probably heard others as well.

Amidst these messages still lodged in my understanding of strength, I started an Ashtanga practice. Although I was very active, I was not “strong” in the weightlifter” sense of the word. I often compared my body in those early practice years to a piece of cooked spaghetti — very mobile, but not much structure. In the early years of practice, I was, like any beginner, fumbling, just trying to figure this practice out. It was three years before I could finish a complete primary series without putting my knees down in chaturanga. It was probably about three years as well before I could finish primary series and not feel exhausted.

Cultivating efficiency

But, somewhere in year four of practice I started the intermediate series and I started to practice differently. My teacher taught me the intermediate series postures one at a time, adding the next one when I could do the previous one. I continued to do all of the primary series postures plus all of my new intermediate series postures until the day I started learning karandavasana, when my teacher dropped primary from my practice. This meant that during that time my practice got continually longer with more physical challenges. For about five years or more I did this very long practice. It became essential that I figure out how to do two things: 1) move efficiently and 2) control my breathing.

What I learned during that particular time of exploration has been invaluable and it changed my understanding of what strength is and where it comes from. The Ashtanga practice will train steadiness…if you let it.

In my journal during that time I wrote this:
I talk with students again and again about building strength. We talk about how slow it is, about how hard it is to see change. Perhaps it is so slow because first we have to dismantle and disassemble the hardness we have built in place of strength.”

Certainly some practitioners come to the practice and initially try to muscle their way through with a kind of gross, brute strength. What I learned in the exploration of all the additional challenges added to my practice, was that that kind of aggressive pushing was not sustainable, necessary, or optimal. Sooner or later that kind of external pushing would get in the way. It has been a good lesson in humility. The Ashtanga practice does not owe any of us postures, regardless of how entitled to them we think we might be.

Eddie Stern describes the paradox of the kind of strength that we can train in the Ashtanga practice in this way in his new book: “Lightness does not necessarily mean having a lean, skinny body. Some people have very lean bodies, but when I go to lift their leg or help them in a pose, they are in fact heavy; others who have bulky bodies can feel very light and supple. The internal actions of yoga create that effect, unlike, say, body building, where the outer shape is the goal. In fact, if someone has highly developed muscles from weight lifting or exercise, his or her body will quite often be stiff and heavy and, because of that have less internal strength.”
Ashtanga then, is training something different.

From the kinesiology perspective, muscles that are “strong” in a weight-lifting” kind of way are also usually short and tight. That means, that while they might do one movement very easily, they also prevent many other movements from being accessible. Since in my body I didn’t have brute strength as an option anyway, I had to find something else. What I found was efficiency of movement. When my practice became very long, I was forced to learn to expend only the energy that was necessary, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to finish the sequence. I learned that if I paid careful attention to how I moved, that brute strength was almost never necessary.

Cultivating ease

Energetically, if we overtrain or constrict movement by acquiring short, tight muscles, we block the movement of energy too. When I started paying close attention to moving as efficiently as possible AND cultivated a smooth, even breath, I stopped feeling tired after practice. Even though I was doing more postures and more challenging postures, I was expending less energy to do them.

I was starting to get an idea of where this whole yoga asana thing might be going in a big picture way. The “strength” aspect didn’t so much come from gaining a bunch of muscular strength, but came instead from choosing to cultivate strength of concentration, strength of attention, and the strength of mind required to control my breathing.

But, even breath control wasn’t something that I could approach from an aggressive idea of imposing control from the outside. Developing more ease in my breathing required that I find the maximum amount of softness and ease in my body within each posture. Only from that place could I maintain ease of breath too.

From all of that work grew a sense of steadiness, stability, and resiliency that stays with me whether I’m on the mat or out in life. “Strength” is not what I first imagined it to be.