In yoga, especially in some of the standing postures, and particularly the Warrior sequences, the topic of strength figures prominently as an intention for practice. Regardless of whether it’s a gentle or challenging physical practice, instructors speak often of finding your inner strength, moving from the inside out and connecting with your true self. Far from contributing to self-involvement, true strength, whether it has to do with physical strength or strength of character, always involves flexibility. As Kundalini yoga master Yogi Bhajan (1929-2004) taught, “Strength is about how calmly, quietly and peacefully you face life.”
Off the mat and outside of the studio, this definition meets its challenges. Tune into the media and some of the recent rhetoric of presidential hopeful Mr. Trump, and you would think otherwise. In the public arena the culture of vitriol is on the rise, with no limits of decency. Aggression and insults are the order of the day. Apparently, it’s a sign of strength to fly in the face of “political correctness” and tell it like it is. No matter if this is actually just an excuse to spew racist or sexist insults in the name of bigotry and misogyny, or if political debate has devolved into ad hominem arguments (personal insults) as a substitute for knowledge and true debate about facts and issues. For all the smug satisfaction that seems to fuel this kind of behavior, no one is any happier for it, and evidence of any calm, quiet or peace is entirely lacking.
So if bullying, aggression and dominance are more an indication of bad behavior, and arguably bad character, than strength, how do we redefine strength? I am reminded of e. e. cummings’ words that to be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment. So, we learn to listen to ourselves and the sound of our inner voice of truth. This is the voice that leads with a moral compass guided more than anything by kindness and compassion. It can be difficult when dealing with others who believe in the world’s definition and dismiss such traits as an indication of weakness. The trick is to find your clarity, engage only as much as necessary, and to stand firm in who you are and what you know. True strength is something you develop over time as you forge your character. It has to do with keeping your word, following through on your commitments, facing life and its challenges even when it’s uncomfortable, sometimes profoundly so. It means showing up over and over and letting what you do speak for itself. The flow of water cuts through rock; it’s a seemingly softer force than the blunt impact of a sledge hammer, but it’s an incredibly effective power all the same.
The African American cultural critic and feminist Audrey Lorde (1934-1992) inspires us with her words, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in service of my vision, it becomes less and less important whether I’m afraid.” And so our strength emanates from a larger vision of who we are. As we learn to move and act from this place of strength, it becomes more and more apparent that strength is not about defending ourselves or those in our immediate tribe; in fact it’s not about us at all but rather about using our power to realize the larger purpose of lifting others up and impacting the world–the web of life–in a positive way. What we do to the web always comes back to us because we are an inextricable part of it. In the face of so much negativity and mean-spiritedness we encounter in the world, we can choose another way. We can choose true strength.