*If you haven’t read my blog post “Stretch” yet, you might read it first. This is the second in a series of blog posts about my Three S’s of yoga: Stretch, Strength, and Space.
Besides stretching, yoga is about strength. Again, though, it might not always be the strength you immediately think about.
When someone new starts yoga, I usually tell them that yoga sneaks up on you. It’s not the same as weight training or an intense cardio program. The gains may take some time and may not be immediately noticeable. Sometimes you see some initial impacts after a month or two and then plateau before it feels like you see a new gain. Often, though, the reason we don’t see additional gains is because we don’t re-attempt “those poses” we couldn’t do before. I am just as guilty as this as anyone else. Who wants to constant reaffirmation that you can’t do something? Who wants to fall on their face….again…trying an arm balance?
When I started, as you know if you read my origin story, I couldn’t hold downdog for a full breath. There are a lot of downdogs in a yoga class, so I could see my progress (or sometimes lack of) in that pose during each class, throughout each week. It wasn’t fast, by the way, but it was always present. It was easy to see. Other improvements of physical strength were less obvious. I wasn’t eager to try any arm balances or put myself out there because I had very little confidence in my abilities, especially if it came to using my arms. I wasn’t super strong before, much less now with the addition of plates and screws in my arm.
Here’s the thing though — the best strength that yoga develops isn’t physical at all.
I came to yoga, like many people, for the physical strength and physical gains I hoped to acquire. But that is not what kept me coming back.
I came back because of the mental strength I found in yoga.
My physical injuries were easy to see after my car accident. What wasn’t obvious to people for many reasons, including that I tried my hardest to hide it, was the impact my accident had on me mentally. I struggled (and still do) with PTSD and sometimes can barely handle being in a car. Commuting to work was a nightmare and included me pulling over more times than I count, convincing myself that I was ok and that the flashes/images of crashing were not real. Arriving at work wasn’t any relief because I immediately began to dread the drive home. There were afternoons where it took me an extra 15-20 minutes to leave work and start home because I was certain that I would not make it. This was just as frustrating as my physical injuries and sometimes even harder for me to manage. I didn’t want anyone to know, didn’t want them to think I was a wimp who just couldn’t give over it. I believed those very things about myself and was so mad at myself for not being able to handle things better, so I assumed everyone else see it the same way. I didn’t know why I couldn’t get over it either, so I put on my smile, acted fine, and tried to avoid needing to ride with anyone other my husband and kids.
As I began practicing yoga on a regular basis, I realized that the drive home from the yoga studio (just across the small town I lived in) was more relaxed. I wasn’t gripped by the same fear the entire time and only noticed it creeping in if I was triggered. I realized I slept better and didn’t have nightmares as frequently. I realized that I began almost instinctively to use the breathing we used in yoga while I drove, especially as I got in the car to begin a trip. It was also slow, but I started developing my mental strength along with my physical strength, and that was unexpected but equally valuable for me.
Years into the practice now, I see a tremendous improvement. I still have bad days and have flashes and nightmares, feel quickly overwhelmed in loud spaces, have trouble driving or riding for long spans and dread long trips weeks in advance, etc. It’s not that yoga has cured me. It can’t. Just as my arm will never again fully straighten, my mind will also now carry this kink, this bend that it cannot fully re-straighten. But yoga helps me handle it all. I now do some amount of yoga every single day. It’s sometimes just a few minutes of quiet breathing before I drive to work. Sometimes it’s an hour of practice. Sometimes it’s both. It’s always different, but the impact is the same. I am seeing my body AND my mind change and grow stronger. I am a better person, a better mother, a better wife, a better everything because of the strength yoga has given me.
Yoga provides the full package of strength. If you are getting started with yoga for either physical or mental strength or for both, give yourself time to see the strength come. Let it sneak up on you. If you encounter a difficult pose or sequence, make note of it, and set an alarm on your phone to remind you to try that same pose or sequence again in three months, in six months. See what it is like then, how it feels, or how long you can sustain it. Just keep putting in the work.
Just last night in my studio class I cued a balance pose that I knew many of my clients did not enjoy. I told them, “You don’t have to get in to the full expression of the pose, but it’s good to come back to those poses that elude us, to see how we feel in that pose today compared to six months ago. We just might surprise ourselves.”