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It may be argued that these days, our society is much too focused on “self”– the self has become the important idea, and community has been forgotten. However, in contemplating this, one realizes that self-esteem and self-confidence– or what I like to refer to as strong inner posture – is far beyond “selfishness”. These ideas are deeper than the modern-day definition of “ego”. When we speak about raising our children to love themselves and be strong within, we don’t mean to encourage undeserving accolades and award or to have children link success with external reward. Building self-esteem and self-confidence – though these words can be overused – requires some planting and gardening at the very core.

Self-esteem, in my opinion, runs much deeper than simply “feeling good about one’s self” (and we could also argue that selfishness, self-entitlement and self-centeredness may actually stem from feelings that lay on the opposite end of self-esteem). I want to extend self-esteem to include self-belief, self-trust, faith in one’s self… strong “inner posture”.

Yours is the energy that makes your world. There are no limitations to the self except those you believe in. ~Jane Roberts

As a naturopathic doctor, I get to meet a lot of people and learn a lot about causes and contributors to disease and dis-ease. Something that I come across quite frequently is a hard outer shell, but a deficiency within. A deficiency in trust in one’s own abilities and capacity – sometimes physical, sometimes functional, and often mental. A deficiency in the sincere belief that we can attain our visions (truly can) and achieve ________ (insert vision here – good health, success, a good partner… etc.). Faith in our bodies and mind and the human capacity. Respect for our Selves and for all that we are. And THIS, to me, is strong inner posture, self-esteem, and self-confidence.

Too many people overvalue what they are not and undervalue what they are. ~Malcolm S. Forbes

This week, I challenge you to assess, understand, and strengthen your inner posture during your yoga practice. I challenge you to see beyond the hard outer shell, and begin to cultivate not only vision, but trust that you have the resources required to achieve that vision. Let’s marvel in the human body and mind and it’s capacity to overcome so many obstacles. And then, we will take it off our mats to achieve even greater things.

When I’m trusting and being myself… everything in my life reflects this by falling into place easily, often miraculously. ~ Shakti Gawain

Low self-esteem is like driving through life with your hand-break on. ~ Unknown

Asana of the week:  To achieve this week’s asana of the week, it is important to work from the bottom up to find stability, security, strength, and, most of all, trust. The first chakra, located at the base of our tail bone, is responsible for feeling grounded, safe, secure. With a deficient first chakra, the core cannot fully form. The first chakra is where we learn to trust. So, take a seat today, before your practice, tall and perched on your sit bones. connect to this first chakra by rocking back and forth, left and right, to find your sit bones. Breathe here to begin. In any core conditioning posture, first bring your attention to your inner thighs and pelvic floor, firm those areas, and then move up from there. This approach will help you more effectively activate your core and will help ensure proper spinal alignment as well.

Kakasana (Crow) and Bakasana (Crane) are our apex poses today. For many people, this can be a tough one. “I don’t have the arm strength,” “I’m going to fall flat on my face,” – these are comments every yoga teacher has heard a thousand times from students. And those are the comments that are expressed aloud. I like to start with kakasana (crow) pose, as there is a very slight difference (which I cannot seem to find a resource for anywhere online) from crane, and requires more core, less brute strength, and can be a little less scary.

I like to start in a wide-knee squat, toes and heels together. Take the time to stretch here – walk your arms forward… way forward… while you press your sit bones back. Then drag one hand back, bending your elbow towards the back of the room, and snuggle the upper arm (tricep) into the upper inner thigh. Try to get it as far back as you can, as high up the arm as possible (yes, this is a big hip opener too). Drag the other arm under the other thigh, and get compact. Use those strong inner thigh muscles to squeeze the arms.

Then, look past the front of your mat, and start to move forward in space. Don’t think “up” with your hips yet, and don’t think “down” with your face (whatever you do!). Slide along a horizontal plane with the earth. You’ll reach a point where there will be no more movement.

Experiment by picking one foot off the floor – but keep squeezing those thighs! Try the other foot. And then, with courage and trust in your heart, see if you can bring both feet off the floor, heels and toes together. Keep thinking “forward”, not back or up or down. Keep the body compact, heels and buttocks close – don’t aim for lifting the buttocks high. Keep using the strength of the legs to secure you to your arms. The more you engage your inner thighs, the more you engage your core.

The next step would be to squeeze those thighs so much that your abdomen and bottom start to rise up towards the sky. Here is where I say bakasana (crane) begins. In bakasana, the hips are raised higher, the spine rounds forward, and the knees are sitting on the shelf of your triceps. BUT, you are still looking FORWARD. Then, for the full expression of the pose, you start to straighten your arms.

You are very powerful, provided you know how powerful you are. ~Yogi Bhajan

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When we think of core strength, our society often envisions hard, flat abdomens. This, somehow, has become the embodiment of a healthy physique in our culture and sells everything from yogurt to underwear. But is this healthy? And most of all, is this important? If we look at the most prominent yogis of the past (including the Buddha himself), we see that not one is “blessed” with a six-to-ten-pack. In fact, many have quite the ‘Buddha belly’. But does that make them weak? According to yogic, Ayurvedic, and even traditional Chinese medical philosophy, it is quite the contrary.

The belly, or the abdomen, is a centre of power, and where a large reserve of energy/qi/prana is held. Thus, if one has worked to develop a supple, flexible, and innately strong midsection (not tense, hard, and blocked), they can tap into an infinite resource of energy. This does not mean that the bellies we see in IHOP or at a buffet are healthy – too much belly fat is detrimental to health. However, the opposite – overworking the abs to eliminate all fat and harden the muscles beneath- is also detrimental to health. Women, especially, are not usually made for six-pack abs naturally. And striving for this is quite unrealistic. If you think of a healthy muscle or muscle group, it is at it’s optimal strength when it is both strong AND flexible – springy and elastic. A tense muscle, especially a stabilizing muscle, cannot attain its optimal strength.

Not only does overworking the abs harm us physically, but it also creates some psychological blockages as well. It only overemphasizes “control” – making our bellies hard to try to “keep it together” and avoid vulnerability. It causes a sort of “mental constipation” – where we are not following intuition, only rules and order… where we are not free to act on our will, but according to standards or society. Yogis, though also warriors and soldiers, require a supple belly in order to connect to a strong core of space and calm within.

In addition, the core encompasses much more than just abdominals. Our posture is greatly determined by the balance of local and global muscles around the spine. Some shorten as they weaken, some shorten as they are overused. Some become overstretched, while others need a good stretching. It is the balance of these muscles that determine what our default posture becomes. And often, in our society, it can be an ugly balance. Again, yoga practice does not only physically attempt to bring the body back into alignment, but in strengthening the core, we are also strengthening a mental core as well. Our internal strength translates in our integrity of character and the ability to remain stable, calm, and authentic despite external conditions. By reconnecting with our body’s optimal alignment and strength, we take stress off of the nervous system, we create space within, and we feel good about ourselves.

Asana of the week: We begin with breath. Our asana this week, is easy seated pose (or Sukhasana). We are going to connect to our core with breath. A supple (but strong) belly is needed to use one’s full breath capacity. Activated core muscles are required to sit tall, without back support, with our legs crossed. (If you feel as if your sit bones are rolling forward when you sit, roll up your mat, use a blanket, or a cushion/bolster to prop up your bottom. Your knees should fall below your hip bones, and you should be seated right on your sit bones, spine long.) Keep in mind that deep, diaphragmatic breathing does not entail pushing your belly out deliberately. Full belly breathing just requires a naturally alternating engagement and release. To assure deep diaphragmatic breathing, first engage the abdomen in a complete exhalation, then allow your lungs to fill up naturally, relaxing the abdomen but not pushing it outward.

Place your right hand on your abdomen so that you may feel your breath moving your diaphragm, your left hand at your heart centre. Breathe slowly and deliberately, sensing the strength of your inner core as your obliques and deep transversus muscles compress to expel the air from your lungs completely. Then enjoy the flow of oxygen that fills your chest as these muscles release, creating space for prana to stream into your heart like water flowing into a basin. After a few minutes, allow your breath to resume its natural pattern. Observe it without criticism or effort. Imagine your abdominal cavity as the fluid container of your deepest wisdom and feel the energy at your navel radiating throughout your body.

The other day, I was thinking about personal growth. What is it about age that makes us wiser, stronger, more experienced? Having recently celebrated another birthday (a milestone this time: 30), it was interesting to think back to ten years ago and how much growth has happened… but also to think about how much growth can still happen.

It was brought to my attention that there are things ten years ago that I would have never have done, things that caused fear, anxiety, discomfort… things that today, I do almost daily. There are things I thought were beyond my reach because of inherent “character flaws”… things that have now became attainable. Then, when I think about how these barriers were broken, I realize they were not necessarily easy. Growth can be a slow process; it is the process of putting one’s self into uncomfortable positions, over and over again, until that particular situation becomes progressively easier.

Sound familiar? Funny enough, when I was saying this the other day, I actually didn’t even realize what I was saying until my beautifully perceptive and ingenious partner started laughing. I looked at him, and he smiled and said, “That’s yoga.”

When you think of it this way, anything is attainable (yes, even Hanumanasana) and the growth one can achieve through a lifetime is limitless. This year, one of my resolutions was to avoid shying away from discomfort, as these experiences are what help us to continue growing, long past those important developmental years of childhood.

For example, feel shy about expressing yourself in groups? Give talks. Start small, with a group of friends, work your way up until it is second nature (or just throw yourself in and become a yoga instructor). Do you hate talking sales and self-promotion? Take every chance you get to get into a sales-like position. Of course, everyone may have things that they just never want to do: but don’t let your (sometimes false) perception of yourself be the reason you avoid it. Remember the strength we talked about (and cultivated) last week… if something calls you, dive in!

Most importantly though, remember that growth is a process. In yoga, we don’t jump right into intense positions in our first class ever, nor in the first 10-20 minutes of any class. As in yoga, discomfort is not pain: stay present, listen to your body and your heart, and remember to breathe.

One of my favorite questions to ask in a naturopathic intake (for more about naturopathic medicine in Canada, see here) is: “Do you feel strong?” Yes, it seems very broad. And that is why I love it.

What is your definition of strength? Can you recognize it in yourself? Is strength purely a physical characteristic for you? Everyone tends to interpret this concept more heavily in one way more than the others– this interpretation itself gives a lot of information about you. Of course, it is contextual as well: if you are asked this in a gym, then it is pretty certain that you answer from a physical perspective. But what if you were asked in a yoga class?

This is the beauty of yoga: yes, we are building physical strength– anyone can tell that after a long 5 breaths in plank position, or after a struggle to get into bakasana (crow pose). However, we are also working internally… past the muscles, past the bones, right into you heart and mind. That is mental strength and will-power keeping you in Warrior 2 way past the burning thighs begin. And it is energetic strength you feel after class when your whole body is buzzing and you feel like new. and emotional strength? When we balance our body, our mind and heart follow. The clarity and evenness we practice in meditation and savasana are what set the foundation for a strong, even and non-reactive heart and mind.

So, do you feel strong? I am hoping that the answer is yes: that you feel strong mentally, emotionally, physically, energetically. Secondly, I hope that, like me, you recognize these strengths and cultivate them daily. I have a tendency, like many, to focus on aspects of myself to improve, things I’ve failed to do, and skills that I do not have. Although it is always beneficial to work on that in which we fall slightly behind, it is even more important to cherish that in which we excel. That is not to say boast it, but wear it proudly. We all have dharma, a path (or two, three, four), and we have been blessed with individual and unique skills, characteristics, and inherent knowledge to get us there. Use them, love them, and show them thanks… And the rest? Build them without judgement or expectation. You may find out that there are gifts hidden even in those things you have to work on a little more.

Just me…

2010 Journey

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