Having practiced yoga for 20 years and having been a teacher for half of that time, it’s my opinion that the spectrum of flexibility and strength that results from yoga practice offers a massive chance for conscious growth.
As a confession, I’m someone who has long turned—quite unconsciously—to flexibility as a way to slip around things that really demanded more strength, i.e., staying power and presence in the midst of the pressures of uncertainty and temporary rejection.
Because I was so malleable, I just kept getting ignored. In fact, I was ignoring myself in lieu of avoiding social discomfort—rejecting myself before possibly getting rejected.
A textbook case of insecurity and codependence, this behavior is not only tiring and painful, but also boring!
Now two years into conscious work to become stronger on all levels, I must say it’s not easy…at all. It’s also not glamorous, because complying is far more popular than authentically disagreeing with situations. On the other hand, I feel much more co-creative with the life force even when humbled occasionally by gross misunderstanding.
Likewise, physically, I’m in my 40s, and it’s my last window to really build up some strength in neglected areas of my body. At the same time, some areas have been worked so repetitively—through years of the six day a week Ashtanga series routine—that they are supporting sometimes forced alignment to “look like” the popularly-celebrated shapes one “should” take on to indicate success in the yoga world.
I don’t deny the great dedication those shapes require. But I do disagree with the emphasis on them as a measure of success or accomplishment. Frankly, if one is lacking boundaries and unable to ground enough to get beyond patterns of acting like an a**hole to one’s self or others, what good is any of this work?
When we rely on flexibility to the extent that we avoid strength, or strength to the point that we avoid flexibility—in our bodies, or in relationships—we play a game involving degrees of violation and compensation. We pitch ourselves in such a way to face difficulties to an unnecessary degree.
On the extreme ends of the spectrum, we either spend energy resisting completely what is trying to come into and stretch our comfort zone (and inspire growth and change in our life), or bending, shifting, and opening to any strong wind without a sense of discretion only to find ourselves later cleaning up boundary messes.
Both of these extremes limit us as dynamic, intelligent organisms with the power to choose integrity at any moment. And both of these extremes waste a lot of energy and time. How do we bring this back into balance? First, we need to know where we are.
Stuff that happens when we’re too dependent on our strength or flexibility on the physical level includes:
>> Flexibility. Relying on only a few muscles when really many more can be recruited inside of an asana to experience the solid and most freeing variation of the pose.
>> Strength. Mindlessly slugging through poses that challenge our range of motion with poor concentration and resentment until we arrive at poses that help the ego celebrate muscles that are strong (and further deny the existence of those that are not).
>> Flexibility. Sending stress into isolated joints in an asana, when really many joints could be sharing the workload and actually conducting the play of gravity and lift.
>> Strength. Causing more structural damage to the spine or any joint group because focus on flexibility is avoided to the point of repeated misalignment in poses—pelvis pitched back (due to tight hamstrings) in forward bends producing a c-curve in the lumbar will stress or even damage the discs in the lower spine is a big one here.
Stuff that happens when we’re too dependent on strength or flexibility on the social level includes:
>> Flexibility. Agreeing to things before taking time to reflect on their implications in our lives in terms of our own energy expenses and returns.
>> Strength. Not listening to people because we already know what we’ll do and how it will go, thus limiting the depths of relationships to utilitarian contracts and shrinking the potential in all of our interactions.
>> Flexibility. Pleasantly collaborating with someone who violates boundaries while assuming it is we who have the problem, thus bending further to meet their expectations while holding down occasional swells of resentment.
>> Strength. Avoiding all responsibility and cursing other people for problems because they are never our fault, thus growing increasingly frustrated with the outcome of situations without exploring a way to evolve our approach.
>> Flexibility. Acting like a pleasant person around others all the time no matter how we actually feel.
>> Strength. Disregarding the feelings of others and assigning the drama label to any level of emotional expression of those around us.
>> Flexibility. Remaining quiet when people say things a) we don’t agree with b) we feel put down by c) that are obviously counter to our intelligent and/or experienced perspective.
>> Strength. Talking over people and ignoring anyone who doesn’t agree with us.
On physical levels:
>> Looking carefully at routines. Changing them up. Exploring new forms of exercise. Doing new sequences of asana. Anything that humbles us to a beginner level.
>> Diligently rooting out asana or any physical experiences that cause pain. If we think deeply about this, we don’t need an explanation.
>> Asking how much yoga, exercise, or whatever is done for the joy of it and a connection to aliveness versus a sense of fitting in or pleasing the imagined perception of others. The same applies to trying on clothes: we can be diligent not to fault the design of our bodies when, to a greater degree, it is the design of the clothes that is not fitting any range of our body shapes.
Noticing how the body behaves around other people and in certain situations. Does it tighten up? Does we start to speed up our talking? Do we talk louder? Do we start locking eyes and crossing arms? Do we nervously laugh? Shift? Physically leave?
On social levels:
>> Staying connected to our feelings, and not being dominated by them or suppressing them. A lot of people say “detach from feelings and observe them.” I find this a bit too close to becoming psychotic. Everyone has feelings. To distance oneself from their own means they also can’t empathize with others. Stay with feelings and allow them to come and go. Developing a communication system with them and a way to manage actions and reactions related to their signals has the beautiful side effect of improved emotional intelligence.
>> Prioritizing our voice and our own perspective—not to the discrediting of others. Not to the discounting of others. Just enough so that we are able to stand in it in the midst of others standing in theirs. This takes practice—when we become aware, we will find a lot of opportunity for it!
>> Moving in directions and into situations that feel good, and standing up for ourselves when someone tries to force us to do things that trigger our gut feelings in a different direction. At the very least we can say, “I’ll think about it,” or “Maybe, let me check my schedule.”
>> Getting familiar with the prostitute archetype and where we fall on the spectrum. Caroline Myss discusses this in her book Sacred Contracts. The prostitute is an archetype we all live with and through.
>> Explore the patterns of recovery from codependence. These patterns are so powerful in their simplicity that one may mistake them as obvious until they actually reflect on them and apply them.
In the end, working on this spectrum is one way we start to see yoga more precisely as what it actually is: a group of practices that help bring more and more of our patterns to the conscious level. Rather than something that is a direct cure for anything in particular, yoga practices help us deepen our awareness at the root level of the real work in our daily lives. Tracing the patterns from the rooted depths of our unconscious, we gain the insight to interrupt the program and forge new ways of living that are more correlated to current situations and thriving instead of merely surviving.
This can feel like thankless work. However, it results in our gradual ability to shine more consistently and brightly as organisms in harmony with our surroundings.
Author: Emily Alp
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina