The Forces Within
In my observations as a yoga teacher all the postures we take, on and off the mat, have a variety of expressions one of which is the reflection of what we are feeling that day. Some people shift from expression to expression in their postures, trying to find the one that “fits”. Some people identify with one expression or another and hang out there for awhile until a new idea sparks transformation, or they feel the pain of the imbalance acutely and decide it’s time to change. The days we live in require a great deal of strength and resilience. Students thrive when given the opportunity to nurture their strength. All of the Tadasana based straight line postures (Plank, Chaturanga Daṇḍāsana (low plank), Vasisthasana (side plank), Vrksasana (tree)) invite us to reflect on and move beyond the psycho-spiritual-physical tangles which obstruct our ability to experience the power of our wholeness.
I always teach plank early in the class. Why? Because it tells me a lot about who I’m teaching and what they are in the mindset to engage with on any given day. Over the years I’ve come across (and experienced in my own body) some common expressions of plank which could be thought of like this:
- The Conqueror: Every ounce of will is drawn forth, the eyes and jaw tighten, the body is wrapped around the posture like grasping onto a twig if we were falling off a cliff. The breath is forced or held.
- The Non-Chalant: A similar determination to conquer the plank, or perhaps the way one feels in that moment, but being aware of the mind body implications of everything, we attempt to look cool. The face and jaw are relaxed, the will is strong, but maybe the leg or the eye or the arm are twitching out a steady current of subconscious disharmony.
- The Dread: The teacher says plank and there is hesitation (not today! Do I have to do this today?). The brows furrow – the face and body droop before even attempting to shift into the posture. The body shifts forward into the plank and then crumples to the floor under the weight of expectations.
- The Flying Buttock: Exactly what it sounds like, our tailbone is not in alignment with the rest of the spine and is jutting up towards the sky. Somehow, it seems to make things easier. But the dis-alignment interferes with the subtle dynamic of balanced strength which we can cultivate through these straight-line postures. In other words. It’s easier, but not the easiest. It’s a little like contorting yourself to adapt to an intrusive seatmate on a plane or subway. We hold back a little from our ability to extend out into the world with the flying buttock shape.
- The aligned: The alignment comes all together, balanced front and back forward and backward and up and down and right and left and it’s EASY. And it SHOWS. This plank can be held for a very long time, by persons of all ages and appearances of physical body strength. The person inhabits the body rather than conquering it through will. The capacity for strength emerges from inside, not out.
None of these are bad or wrong but they can be invitations to bring a little more yoga into our yoga. Yoga meaning to “yoke together” to bring a little more of our inner being into our actions on and off the mat.
Embracing the spiritual practices of yoga opens us to the exhilarating vastness of possibility. To integrate that vastness into our lives requires a moment by moment yoking to spirit as we take action. Breath is the key to this on and off the mat. Breath is a doorway to the subtle realms. Developing an understanding of balance in the body supports this. Balance in the body frees us from some of the struggles of the postures and opens an inner spaciousness which allows us to inhabit a physical action and tap into the vast potential of a given moment. Releasing the external goals allows the body to be aligned by the illumined inner and outer forces, rather than our perceived shortcomings.
To cultivate right effort in your plank try these:
- Focus on the breath
- Focus on the balance, which will always be some evening out of two opposing forces
- Release the goal – or perhaps the thought of the goal-including your expectations of what it would take to achieve it
- Extend in all directions
- Repetition and consistency
Practice of an integrated plank posture reveals our capacity to succeed through attention, presence, balance and extension (used in a geometric sense rather than anatomical), allowing us to funnel our spiritual potential into our physical form. We no longer have to build strength, we become strength.