I went to a HIIT class (high intensity interval training for the uninitiated of you out there) with my boyfriend a couple of weeks ago. I have to say, I was pretty nervous. 5 or 6 years ago I was running half marathons, loved spin class, and went to boxercise. I did yoga once a week, and gradually, that once a week became 2-3 times a week, and from there I began practicing at home, and slowly, over time, the other activities stopped. I never really did yoga for fitness reasons, but I knew that running was making my hamstrings tight, which wasn’t helping my yoga practice, so I gradually stopped going. Running had got me through a difficult time in my life, acting as a moving meditation, helping my mind to switch off and focus on breathing and moving forward, but somehow, I just didn’t need it in the same way.
The other activities – the gym, spin, boxercise, swimming – dropped away purely because of time. I had to prioritise, and yoga became the priority. When my boyfriend invited me to HIIT training I felt nervous and excited. I used to love that sort of activity, the burning away of frustration and anger, of lifting flagging energy levels after a day in the office, and of course, the feeling of my body as it got fitter and stronger, but it had been a while. Quite a while. In that time I’d been practicing yoga regularly, but I was nervous about my cardiovascular ability, my strength, and my overall fitness. Despite being ayoga teacher, I still don’t consider particularly flexible or strong.
As it turns out, I really enjoyed the class, found it fun to do something purely focused on the physical, and was surprised that I was much fitter and stronger than I expected. Thanks, yoga – not only bringing peace to my mind, but strength to my body. This is where it is so easy for the ego to sneak in. Yes I can touch my toes, yes I can do a backbend, yes I can see massive improvements in my shoulderstand, but does making my body stronger somehow make me a better person? No way.
As a yoga teacher, I’m used to hearing the word strong. Someone has a ‘strong’ practice. Someone has natural ‘strength’ in their upper body. Someone is ‘strong’ in that posture. In classes I hear it bandied about, and I’m sure I’ve said it a few times myself, and to an extent, it’s true. Regular yoga practice, if it includes asana practice, will make your body feel strong (as I found out when I was able to keep up in HIIT class), and if the body feels strong, the mind will also feel strong.
But what happens when your body isn’t feeling strong? If you happen to be over the age of 65 and just getting into exercise, or if you’ve just had a baby, or if you’re just bloody knackered? If you’re not feeling strong and you can’t ‘keep up’ with the class, does this mean you are somehow weak? I say again – no way.
To me strength is the single mum who works tirelessly to be able to look after her children. Strength is doctors and nurses working long hours with little reward to take care of other people. Strength is knowing when you need to work hard, and when you need to rest, and respecting the pair. Strength comes from overcoming depression and anxiety to find more peace and joy in your everyday life. Strength is following your heart, making your dreams come true, and making sure they are your dreams (not someone else’s). Sure come to yoga, make your body fit and strong – but don’t miss that point that the practice of yoga is there to help you uncover your own strengths, your own power, and your innate sense of wellbeing.
Have fun with your practice – challenge yourself a little bit, commit to a regular class, use it as an opportunity to explore your breath and your mind and sure, get stronger and fitter – but don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not strong enough simply because you can’t do handstand. Strength, like beauty, comes from within. And it’s not something to be only found on the yoga mat (or HIIT class). What makes you strong? Ask yourself this seriously: what have you overcome, how have you grown and changed, how situations have you survived? Respect and acknowledge all you have achieved so far, and you will start to see how strong you already are.