Several years into my yoga practice it occurred to me that I am strong. This was a revelation. At 5ft tall and 100lbs, I had always viewed myself as something of a whisp. Other people were strong, I was flexible maybe, but not strong. Later I realized that strength was more about letting go that it was about armoring. What caused my shift in perspective? Amazing teachers & my own willingness to look deeper.
Roger Eischens was an amazing teacher whose presence inspired confidence and whose work was as brilliant as it was challenging. His work was based on affecting the core through the periphery of the body, and I guess it worked for me.
Roger passed away before I realized the full effects of his work on my body and on my psyche. When I realized my upper body was strong, it was more than just a sense of physical strength. It was accompanied by a sense of power and possibility that I had never felt before in this diminutive body. People had said to me in the past: “You’re all muscle, aren’t you?” But I had never felt strong. This is when I realized that strength is much more than muscles that are well developed, but a sense of deep connection.
When I work in class on upper body strength, we work on feeling the strength of the arms from the press of the palms into the floor to the upper arm bones pressing back. This engages the lattissimus dorsi and the muscles across the shoulder blades and releases the tense activation of the trapezius muscles and the muscles of the neck. What I realized was that in my own practice I was also affecting my heart chakra with all this upper body work, and that the challenge was not to armor more, but to strengthen and support in order to open.
Sometimes we armor our bodies in ways we don’t realize when we don’t feel strong. This armoring translates into habits in the body that speak louder than our own perceptions of ourselves. A few months into this work, and feeling very confident about my strength and balance, I took a workshop with Kim Schwartz – another amazing teacher. Kim adjusted me in Half Moon. Saying “You’re going to feel as if you’re bowing” he adjusted my upper spine so that my lower ribs moved back and my shoulders forward. This simple adjustment took away that amazing feeling that I thought was strength, and brought with it a feeling of softness that was a little disturbing. Later Kim spoke of the thrusting forward of the lower ribs as indicative or arrogance, which was really was disturbing to me. Arrogance? Me? No way! I was not arrogant, I was actually shy – and here he was stripping me of the little confidence I had finally gained. He had to be wrong this time. Or maybe it was just the other people he’d adjusted who had that problem.
The magic of yoga is what the practice can reveal to you if you are willing to see. It is often the revelations that are most disturbing that contain the greatest wisdom. I couldn’t let go of that notion of arrogance, and when my resistance finally burned itself out, I had to admit to myself that he was right. I was very opinionated, and tended to become annoyed with people who didn’t hold the same opinions. And in many ways I was very pleased with myself at what I had ‘accomplished’ with my yoga practice. What also became clear was that this arrogance was the flip side of a deep sense of insecurity. The feeling of ‘bowing’ brought with it a feeling of being vulnerable. My armor had been taken away, and I wasn’t sure if what was left was sufficient. What was clear, however was that this place was much more open, much more receptive, and allowed more freedom than where I had been before.
In the body we thrust the lower ribs forward when there is a lack of strength across the lower thoracic spine – the third chakra/personal power area. This thrusting forward of the lower ribs is of accompanied by a lack of mobility in the side ribs, a closing in to protect the heart that also restricts the breath. When we can release the side ribs and allow the breath into the back body, the low ribs can settle into place and strength is accompanied by and inner sense of ease, a settling into the body, rather than a need to push forward. This, I believe, is true confidence – the ability to allow. I suspect this is also the place from which we develop the courage to truly see ourselves with compassion.