My husband likes to pose the intriguing question, “ Do you think it’s more important to feed your strengths or shore up your weaknesses?” As an Economist and a musician who’s spent many years playing in bands, he understands the value of specialization. Obviously, to optimize the music, you want to put the best singer on vocals, the virtuoso on lead guitar, the established drummer on the kit…etc. I recently unearthed a recording from April Fools Day, 1980, where the members of the Grateful Dead switched instruments for a pretty terrible version of Promised Land. It was a fun prank, but one song was more than enough! Certainly, when it comes to collaboration, it pays to place everyone in the slot where they shine the brightest. But what about when we’re by ourselves?
Most of us tend to gravitate towards the things we are naturally good at. It’s fun to explore our strengths, and it makes us feel good about ourselves. But when we only engage in activities where we excel, we miss out on the feeling of accomplishment that comes from mastering something we never imagined we could. And we rob ourselves of the lessons of patience and perseverance gained through struggle. As an example, my husband and I, who are both sorely lacking in the handy man department, recently purchased a sectional couch on Marketplace. It was only when we picked it up that we realized it was unassembled. And only after we got it home and unboxed that we discovered there were no directions. So, armed with an Allen wrench and an overblown sense of optimism, we set to work trying to put that beast together. It was a comedy of errors, and it took forever. There were missteps. There were bad words. There was blood. But now it sits boldly in our living room, providing comfort and that unique feeling of pride and self-congratulations that comes from being able to say, “I did it!!”
One of the many benefits of led yoga classes is that, as students, we don’t choose which poses to explore. A good yoga teacher will lead us into all different parts of the body through a variety of asana…some we enjoy and are “good” at, and others we might absolutely hate or dread. But what poses are you practicing at home? Mostly the feel good ones? I get it. I have naturally flexible hips and a pliable pelvis. I LOVE hip openers and back bends. They utilize my natural strengths and feel really good. I see major improvements in a short amount of time. The pay off is great! Conversely, my hamstrings are short, tight, and remarkably resistant to change. I have a sacral imbalance exacerbated by forward bends that requires presence, care, and precision. I’ve also discovered that something dark and toxic lives in the back of my thighs – something really fun like shame and deep feelings of unworthiness. Unsurprisingly, I have strong urge to avoid forward bends. It all seems like a lot of work, with a high likelihood of physical and emotional discomfort, for very little reward. It’s so much more fun and satisfying to stick to the hip openers I excel at, and the backbends, that feel great to my body and make me a little bit high.
But fold forward I must, because yoga is all about shoring up the weaknesses, or more accurately, going into the places we tend to avoid. Holistic health is a matter of balance. If I only follow the good feelings, my pelvis will continue to open while my hamstrings only get tighter. It takes discipline and restraint to move into the unexplored shadows of our bodies. Presence, precision and refinement are vital. We have to take great care in our asana practice not to defer to our bendy places. We can fool ourselves that we are moving further into a pose by recruiting flexibility from our naturally open areas without even realizing it. Do you arch your back in all of your standing poses, or turn your toes out in backbends? Do you even know? This is why it is important to have a teacher who will keep us honest in class, and exacting standards of refinement and alignment at home. Maybe it makes sense to experiment with props and modifications in certain challenging poses. We must be willing to take a step back, counter the ego, and practice poses in a way that might look less impressive, but actually takes us deeper into closed off areas. The next time you find yourself feeling envious of the super flexible “Bendy Wendys” in class, remember that they have it harder than the rest of us. They must vigilantly stabilize all of their overly flexible places in order to access somewhere new.
Pay very close attention to the poses you tend to avoid. Chances are good they are the ones you need the most. The poses we don’t like show us the weaknesses we try to ignore, and the strengths we have yet to cultivate. They grant us entrance into our hidden physical and emotional limitations. They bring that which cowers in darkness into the light where all can be healed. They are the poses that will make you feel a little…or a lot…uncomfortable. They might produce tears, frustration and agitation. Hooray!!! Keep Going!! Discomfort is often a harbinger of impending breakthrough. Should you feed your strengths or shore up your weaknesses?? YES!