"When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace...."
Strength means many different things to different people. When we talk about strengthening our bodies, the vast majority of people in the Western world think of lifting weights, running, biking, or boot camping until we're ready to drop. 'Insanity' workouts are all the rage. Even in yoga there is a segment of practitioners who practice 'power yoga' and push, push, push until they are vulnerable to injury or sheer exhaustion to the point of it being unhealthy. This tendency has produced a whole subculture of yoga in the West that is nothing more than sophisticated calisthenics, with those who can bend the farthest or do the most extraordinary yoga postures being deemed as 'masters'. Unfortunately it is through these external, superficial forms that many believe they have strength. This system may work for a time, but the underlying foundation is not there and inevitably, we come to a point in our lives where brute strength is no longer sustainable.
Many believe someone is truly strong when they force others to think, act, or believe in what they personally think is true. Yelling louder than another, talking faster than another, even intellectually out maneuvering another to get one's way is, to many, is a sign of strength. Trying to make others 'wrong' in order to make oneself appear 'right', whether it comes to religion, politics, or personal viewpoints, may give someone a false sense of strength. With children, as well as adults, we all are quite familiar with bullying and the destruction and pain that this ego driven behavior causes.
What if we were to back away for a moment and consider what true strength really means and how we can achieve it in a kinder and more compassionate way?
Strength is so much more than physical. It is also having strength of heart, strength of character and spiritual strength. It is being strong to stand for what you believe is right and standing for your truth without hurting others. Sometimes choosing silence is the most effective show of strength.
Through the ethical codes of behavior laid out in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, we are taught strength through self purification and shedding of the ego in order to recognize our true self. These central precepts called The Yamas ask us to remember that the techniques and forms are not goals in themselves but vehicles for getting to the essence of who we truly are.
Through Patanjali's teaching, we learn how to find a deep strength in all aspects of our being. Let's look at how these teachings provide us with accessible guidelines for attaining strength through the Yogic principles of the Yamas.
Ahimsa--Compassion for All Living Things:
Ahimsa is usually translated as nonviolence, but this precept goes far and beyond the limited penal sense of not killing others. First and foremost we have to learn how to be nonviolent toward ourselves. From this grows our understanding of nonviolence towards other human beings and ultimately towards all living beings.
Mahatma Gandhi is a prime example of showing strength through the practice of Ahimsa. To regain the freedom of the Indian people, Gandhi demonstrated that through nonviolent, peaceful protest, his people could show great strength of will and conviction and, in the end, they succeeded in gaining their liberation.
What yoga teaches us is that who we are and how we are constitute the ultimate proof of a life lived in freedom. If you do not truly believe this, it is likely that you will measure your successes and your strengths in your yoga practice and your life through the achievement of external forms. Because it's easy to measure physical prowess, we may compare ourselves to others who are more flexible, more muscular, or more "advanced" in their yoga postures, getting trapped in the belief that the forms of the practice are the goal.
Satya or Truthfullness in speech, thought and action:
Have you ever been caught up in a big lie? If so, you have experienced how a lie can compound on itself. It potentially causes the necessity to lie about other things in order to protect and keep the original lie going. Because there is no foundation in the truth, eventually a lie can cause a life to fall apart, big time.
Probably the most challenging part of the practice of Satya is being true to our own heart. Mistrust or lack of clarity of our inner values can make it difficult to know the nature of our own heart's desire, but even when we become clear enough to recognize what truth means for ourselves, we may lack the courage and conviction to really live our truth. It is important to know our truth and through inner reflection and meditation so that we can be clear on what that really is. When you have the truth on your side and you live it, you can look in the mirror at yourself with peace in your heart, you can look into your loved one's eyes with no guilt or shame, you can fall asleep at night with a free spirit. This is life affirming and strengthening, knowing that you are coming from a place of truth and not having to manipulate your way through situations and relationships.
Practicing Satya also demonstrates your own strength of character to others so they will trust you and depend on you to hold them when they need your support. Speaking your truth to yourself and to others is crucial for your integrity and to live a fearless life.
Asteya or non stealing:
Oftentimes we feel a 'lack' in our lives and from this feeling of not having enough or not having 'what it takes' we steal or take what is not rightfully ours. This not only refers to stealing 'things' or money, but also by stealing other people's ideas, concepts and intellectual property or stealing people's time by being late. Each time that we lower our energy by taking something that is not ours, we weaken our character, our integrity, and our inner strength. We also undermine a sense of trust with those around us.
In essence, we are telling ourselves that there is 'not enough' in our world to go around and this is simply not true. There is enough abundance in this incredible universe for everyone, and when we shift our attention to all of the positive things that we're surrounded by rather than what we lack, by the law of attraction, we will draw the positive things into our lives. Through affirmations and meditation (especially on gratitude) we can begin to see the world through a lens of abundance rather than through the lens of 'not enough', and we begin to see and recognize strength and positivity popping up all over in our lives.
Not stealing demands that we cultivate a certain level of self-sufficiency and let go of unrealistic expectations so that we do not expect more of others, our family, or our community than what we really need. Even those that have very little can find ways to give, especially of their love or their time, showing great strength of heart. It is often those that have the least that are the most generous and sometimes the people that appear to have incredible abundance in their world that are the most selfish and give nothing at all- we all know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge!
Many of us may not have all the clothes, exotic vacations, fancy cars and houses that many consider signs of success, but isn't having an intact character, close, trusting and healthy relationships with the ones we love and an open and compassionate heart so much more important? Ask those who are close to death and they will tell you that these are the things that truly matter in a life.
Brahmacharya--Merging with the One:
This teaching is translated into purification through celibacy. Many people in today's world find this one difficult to understand or incorporate into modern life, but I will give you my interpretation of it. It is obviously unrealistic to expect anyone to be completely celibate unless you are a monk or a swami, and I think this teaching is more about learning to control one's sexual energy, not stop it or ignore it. I also relate this teaching somewhat to dealing with addictive behavior of any kind, but we will focus on sexual addiction.
If we are committed to a yogic lifestyle of clean living and purification of the body, mind and spirit, our sexual behavior definitely is one aspect of our lives that we should look at. When embraced joyfully, abstinence, or the containment of sexual energy can be enormously self-nourishing and vitalizing and, at the very least, can provide us with an opportunity to learn how to be mindful and use this energy wisely.
In Yoga, balance is an important part of the practice and we learn that too much of anything, even if it's sex, is not beneficial. If we don't know or understand how to redirect our sexual energy back inwards (we can learn through tantric and breathing practices) and unknowingly allow it to flow out during sex, this results in a temporary loss of our inner prana or energy and strength. It is a well known fact that when athletes are about to compete they are told not to have wild sex the night before or even several nights before in order to store up and keep their energy.
Sexual addiction to pornography is rampant in our culture today because porn is so easily accessible on the internet. I won't get into a big discussion on the moral issues of porn, but I will say that going down the black hole of obsessively looking at pornography creates a false sense of what sex is and dehumanizes the experience. The more graphic ideas and images that the mind gets used to, the more extreme one needs to go to get stimulated and this creates unrealistic expectations of real life intimacy. One can easily become controlled by this urge rather than being the one in control which is contrary to the teachings of walking the path to liberation.
Sex can bring joy and delight into our lives and it should, but in a mindful way. Maintaining a deep respect for your own body and with whom you share it with gives you peace of mind and strength of character that you may not feel if you are careless.
The early sixth century philosopher, Heraclitus, professed that you cannot step into the same river twice. In other words, the world is in constant flux or change and nothing remains the same. The teaching of Aparigraha or non grasping is based on this concept. The world is constantly changing and is, in effect, not real, therefore, trying to hold onto physical things or even mental constructs will always result in suffering. When we acquire something we consider good in life, many of us hold on to it for dear life, believing that our self worth and happiness depends on this thing. Whether it be fancy cars, big houses, successful businesses or personal relationships, nothing lasts forever! Learning to 'go with the flow' and be adaptable is one way to truly find your inner strength. Having a solid spiritual practice and basing your happiness on your inner awareness and understanding of your true self is much more of a sure thing than believing that 'things' or another person will make you happy.
I often tell my students that connecting with your inner essence or what we call in yoga the 'Atman' or the divine spark within you is the key to understanding your eternal nature and focusing on the part of your being that is always joy, always peace, always love. We know that life is unpredictable and we can't control what other people do, but we can control what we ourselves do and this is where we find our strength.
As we all have discovered at some time in our lives, holding on too tightly to anything, whether it be possessiveness of our partner, material things or even our youthful appearance, only leads to disappointment, suffering and ultimately the destruction of those very things that we've placed the most value on. Our deepest strength lies in detaching mentally and emotionally from the ever-changing world of 'things' (what we call Maya), letting go of the old constructs and the beliefs that are no longer serving us and allowing ourselves to internally adapt, change and grow. It is through this growth that we become stronger and yet, even more resilient.
So how do we tap into our inner strength? Through living a healthy lifestyle (check out the five principles of yoga series), practicing yoga as many times a week as possible (3-5 if you can!), meditation and positive thinking, and a meaningful spiritual practice that suits you, you can find that anchor of strength within you!
With love and deep inner strength, Jai!