Push-Ups 101: Dropping the Conventional & Taking the Long Way Home.

Via on Mar 19, 2012

“Strength cannot be built from the muscles alone.”  ~ Yogacharya

Even if you start doing push-ups it will not help,” said Yogacharya Venkaesha to a student struggling with an arm posture.

My teacher Yogacharya—a yoga therapist and expert in backbends—is known in Mysore for verbally leading students in their practice without attempting physical adjustments. When it comes to his instructions, he hits the nail on the head. It’s as if he can read your mind.

Pattabhi Jois (often called Guruji) once told me I had “no strength”. I didn’t like that. In fact, it bothered me enough that I started to do push-ups. I did them until I collapsed on the floor, exhausted.

Like many people, I wanted to grow stronger, and as a woman the desire was intense. Looking around the practice room in Mysore, I knew when compared to the male practitioners, I wasn’t quite as strong, and I made myself feel better by commenting on my flexibility. But how was I to build strength?

Certainly many of the arm balance postures we find in yoga are difficult in terms of physical tenacity.

When I began regularly studying under Yogachaya he inquired about my practice. He asked how many hours I spent practicing, reading, meditating, and chanting. When I told him I did push-ups, he gave me a painful (almost dirty) look. Then he laughed.

Keeping in mind that the practice of yoga is not just physical but mental training as well, my practice probably looked pretty silly from my teacher’s eyes. It is relatively easy to do the physical part, and extremely easy to forget about the ultimate purpose—to still the mind.

In Sanskrit sthita-prajna means steadiness of thought. Developing ways to steady and strengthen the mind however, is not always as straightforward as it seems. I have found that the best way to do this is to stick to one variation at a time.

For several years I studied a particular discipline without deviation. From Sivananda Yoga to the primary series of Ashtanga Yoga, I practiced from start to finish with little room for improvisations, mixing, or skipping whatever I wanted. When I started studying AtmaVikasa Yoga—the evolution of the soul created by Yogacharya—I practiced with the same vigor.

From this fertile ground I grew the ability to trouble-shoot the problems that I encountered along the way. To develop an advanced posture, like padma mayurasana (lotus peacock), I had a fundamental practice from which to draw upon.

Originally my knees did not bend in lotus, my back did not melt into wheel, and my arms could not lift me into a handstand.

First came lotus or padma, and I worked through all of it’s forms (sitting, lying flat and upside-down). When I practiced under Pattabi Jois in Mysore he watched through all of my painful moments, bending my knees and going into gardha pindasana (the fetus pose). Every day Guruji looked on in silence, letting me do the practice without interfering.

Sharath, Pattabhi Jois’s grandson, who at the time helped only the senior students, encouraged me when he demonstrated how his knee moved out of its joint. He even said it had been “restructured”.

The real awakening however, did not happen when my legs folded neatly into lotus, but rather when I discovered the connection of where I was blocked internally. That single moment opened a gateway in deepening my practice.

Meanwhile, I was also developing my practice in arm strengthening postures—no push-ups to help me get there. Speaking from experience, push-ups do not work. I was just burning off excess energy. I actually concluded later that they are better for developing stomach strength.

Arm postures require balance, control, and an unwavering ability to focus, with strength being a very small component.

My practice ranged from simple to very basic for a long time. One of the mistakes that most people make is thinking that a complicated posture is somehow more effective. As a tip to improve your practice start with the basics. By basic I am talking about simple poses that you may mistakenly think have nothing to teach you.

Try simple posture like the plank and hold it for 1-2 minutes. It quickly becomes apparent that this so-called simple posture has a lot to offer.

Essentially every posture I have ever practiced has been a deeper training in conquering fear, doubt, and the tamas (inertia) aspect of the mind. I consider them more  mental than physical feats.

All of the more advanced postures that I began practicing stemmed from hours of being in simple ones, with attention to breath, alignment, and concentration. I have my teacher Yogacharya to thank for this.

Determine where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Consider what postures you like, and those you would avoid. Commit to practicing one of the former and two of the latter. Take notes and remember, yoga is a journey.

Hopefully you have a teacher who inspires you to think beyond conventional methods—like doing push-ups. You might feel like you are taking the long way home, but you’ll definitely get there.

For more by Heather Morton, please see:

>Myth: Your teacher is going to give you the answers.

>Eight things you should know about backbends.


Editor: Jennifer Cusano



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About Heather Morton

Heather Morton currently teaches classes and retreats internationally including in India. She became known for her work on yoga backbends by producing Freedom of the Body DVD ; an instructional practice video on backbending. Since its conception it has continued to reach students all over the globe. For 15 years, Heather directed The Yoga Way (TYW); a Toronto yoga school she founded offering structured yoga programs and no drop-ins. Over the last 17 years she has returned 17 times to India to study yoga under her teachers including Shri K. Pattabhi Jois and Yogacharya Venkatesha in Mysore. Coming to yoga, however, was not her original aspiration after starting what looked like a promising modelling career. Heather left Canada to live and work in South Korea; a pivotal shift in search of 'herself'. After extensive travelling and teaching, Heather returned to Canada to study yoga and founded TYW. As a post-graduate student she also conducted ethnographic research on Yoga for children in Mysore and obtained a Masters of Education. Heather has been featured in The Globe & Mail, Toronto Life Magazine and other media sources. In between teaching, practice and motherhood she writes for YogaLife, HelloYoga and MindBodyGreen. Find her on facebook.


13 Responses to “Push-Ups 101: Dropping the Conventional & Taking the Long Way Home.”

  1. Vision_Quest2 says:

    I always thought Pilates was a kind of "Express Yoga." That doesn't keep me from doing pilates, dynamic enough of a practice to include push-ups. No, push ups don't strengthen MY arms. They are not strong and have a limited potential to be strong, particularly at my age. I am not going to see lotus posture any time very soon, if ever. (See Paul Grilley's explanations as to why … or not, your choice)

    Big surprise when I thought I'd injured my chest area, doing compound pilates push-ups. Seems, I'd been wrong. It was in trying to lift into headstand, a posture which a former teacher had told me that with my regular practice I should have been able to have gotten into about a year and a half ago (past perfect tense is intentional here). My spiritual take to my practice increased two-fold with a new motivation and direction on my mat, when I was free to do some slightly modified compound push ups again!

    Conclusion: Push ups may exhaust you, but take it from the old yogini, Vision_Quest … they probably will not hurt you …

    • Hi, I actually thought of writing that too….Re: they won't hurt you!! Maybe it could have been called the 'spiritual push-ups'. Still, in many of these postures there is more than just having arm strength but engaging the chest, etc….And beyond that is developing better focus.

      In the end, we all need to try what works and doesn't work.

      Doing lotus is not always the 'must' either. In fact, it is not even used for serious and long periods of meditation. It is rather siddhasana that is practiced.

  2. Kristi says:

    Such a good reminder of why we even practice asana in the first place. Thank you!!

    • For sure and as a teacher I think it is really important to keep reminded ourselves and our students…..it is really easy to get into the 'exercise' part…..That's any fools game. The rest….re: deep concentration, devotion and actually practicing some of the yamas ans niyamas are far more challenging that robust exercise.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. Helen Adrien says:

    This is a reat article in that the emphasis is not on what we normally are told to do for strength and endurance. In my own experience I could not hold a plank position for more than a few seconds and now I have built endurance and strength for minutes! It really works and concentration and breathing works!

  4. Paul Tabatabai says:

    Wow.. I’m with you about this. Can’t let that happen.. What does Gallaudet symbolize now? It should be all about “deaf world”… Not let any “scientists” do something like trying to fix or change the way we deafies live our lives. We aren’t broken.. We don’t need to be fixed. We don’t need to be treated like guinea pigs when you test your audiological and speech on us. Gallaudet should focus on how to make our lives better. With ASL, technology devices like TTY, CC, pagers, help us get jobs, etc.. That’s what Gallaudet should focus on that.Hmmm… I wonder what Gallaudet would become? No longer a deaf college???…. :

  5. Thanks very much Bob…it all helps!


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