“There are two ways of exerting one’s strength; one is pushing down, the other is pulling up.”
Booker T. Washington
I’ve been spending a lot of time practicing Surya Namaskar lately. Otherwise known as sun salutations, this series of prostrations are the cornerstone of a vinyasa practice. Traditionally, they were done in the morning, pre-dawn hours, as a moving meditation in honor of the life-giving light of the sun. In our western interpretation of vinyasa yoga, these poses are done at the beginning of the class, as a means of syncing the breath and the body, creating heat, and building strength. A typical vinyasa class usually has several rounds of Surya Namaskar, and this, as one can imagine, can become habitual, and at times, mundane.
I came across the quote above recently, and was inspired during my daily practice. As I moved through the familiar poses, I noticed how much those words rang true. Physically and energetically speaking, each posture of the sequence is an exercise in strength.
We begin in Mountain Pose, Tadasana, with our feet firmly planted to the earth (pushing down). We strengthen our legs by pulling up the energy through the soles of the feet, drawing it up into the legs and lower torso. By the second pose, Urdvha Hastasana, we energetically pull up our arms overhead by staying grounded in the legs and pelvis. And then, the first prostration, that first display of reverence to the powerful light of our universe, we bow deeply, our hands touching the earth, ready to receive its strength. We receptively pull our chest up toward the light in Urdvha Mukha Svanasana (upward facing dog), and dynamically push the ground away in downward facing dog, strengthening our arms and upper back, grounding and firming the legs.
Strong postures indeed.
Taking the time to re-establish my foundation in these poses brought my attention back to details I had long forgotten, and allowed me to take the principles of pushing down and pulling up into every other asana in my practice. The idea of exerting strength, and thus building it, suddenly became very clear, leading me into a more dynamic and meditative practice, one in which I reveled in the exploration of strength in its many forms.
Unlike movement by sheer force, a contemplative, deliberate action yields a precise expression of strength. It is directed to where it needs to be, not scattered about unnecessarily. And if we move beyond the idea of physical expressions of strength to those of a much more subtle nature, we are confronted by questions of how we exert strength off the mat, towards ourselves and others.
A show of strength can vary greatly by its origins and the intentions by which it was put forth.
Yes, we can exert strength by pushing down, remaining rooted in our convictions, and showing solidarity for a greater good. But that same force, when originated from a sense of fear and intended to exert control or oppression, can cause devastating harm. Likewise, there is a much greater, more graceful exertion of strength, one that is fueled by wisdom, compassion, bravery and heart; and that is the act of pulling up. By shouldering and supporting others, by giving voice to those who cannot be heard, by being hopeful in times of great struggle, we each possess the boundless capacity for extraordinary displays of strength.
I saw Disney’s Beauty and the Beast yesterday, a gem of a film with a beautiful heroine who embodies strength, and exerts it, at times quietly and at others, quite courageously, throughout the story. Among them, Belle sacrifices herself to save her beloved father, bravely exerts her strength in defense of the dreaded Beast, and shows compassion to those imprisoned in his castle. She is a character deeply rooted in the strength of her convictions, yet is the most powerful when she is pulling the Beast up and out of his dismal existence. Her strength lies in her wisdom, her perceptive heart, and her courage to imagine herself in a world beyond the boundaries of her small village. When confronted with adversity, she fights with her body, mind, and heart. And in the end, it is her kiss that brings the Beast back to life!
What an empowering example for our young ones, and for us all. True wisdom lies in knowing your strength, and in learning how and when to use it.