Strength and Flexibility: The Balancing of Opposites
Ha: sun, masculine energy, pingala nadi, heating, expansion, yang, strength.
Tha: moon, feminine energy, ida nadi, cooling, contraction, yin, flexibility.
Hatha: union of these opposites, “determined effort”.
How is the balance between Ha and Tha in your practice? Do you generally prefer to cultivate strength or are you happier working on your flexibility? When we start our practice it may depend on our constitution whether we favour strength over flexibility or the other way around. This makes sense; it is part of the process of getting to know ourselves, of taking responsibility and responding to our needs at a particular moment of time, recognizing also that our bodies change with time.
In general and as we deepen our yoga practice, we are seeking a healthier balance between the two physical extremes of strength and flexibility.
In search of this equilibrium, it is useful to understand the concepts of tension and compression. Both tension and compression create a sense of discomfort during asana. Feeling compression in a particular asana reflects a structural limitation, i.e. at a skeletal level, and most likely, the posture should be modified to maximize our benefit from it. Tension, on the other hand, reflects a limitation in muscles, tendons, ligaments or fascia and means that the asana can be taken further over time. For example, if our heels do not reach the floor in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog) it could be due to: 1) compression: ankle bones do not flex enough (dorsiflexion) or 2) tension: hamstrings and calf muscles are short, which could be changed with practice.
In the case of tension we can work on deepening our asana. This can be done in a yang manner (seeking strength), or in a yin manner (seeking flexibility).
Some asanas are said to be more intrinsically yang, like Virabhadrasana (Warrior Pose); while others are more yin, like Paschimotanasana (Seated Forward Bent). Any posture however, can be done in a yang or a yin way. For example, we can do Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog) with hands flat on the ground and with an emphasis on stretching our hamstrings by pushing our heels to floor, or with our hands like “claws” on the floor and our arms slightly bent to strength our arm muscles.
When faced with compression (structural limitation) in a particular asana, it is important not to force ourselves into it, but instead maximize the benefits of that pose by A) modifying it or B) choosing a different asana with similar effects. For example, if I find it difficult to do Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose) because my shoulders are tight due to my bone structure, I can support my hands on a pair of blocks braced against a wall. Or I could choose a different backbend to create mobility in the spine, the hips and shoulder joints, for example, Ustrasana (Camel Pose).
Remember that the asanas are just a means, not an end in themselves. Asanas help us to develop our body awareness, finding out more about our possibilities and limitations so that over time we can reach a healthy balance between strength and flexibility, and fully benefit from our yoga practice.
“Strength without flexibility leads to rigidity. Flexibility without strength leads to fragility”
- S Prev