Asana practice focuses a lot of attention on stretching and "opening" the body. It goes to great lengths to reduce tension in the body and mind, and increase the functional range of motion in the joints of the body.
But flexibility is not the solution to every physical, mental and spiritual problem. Strength is the other side of the body's coin and equally as valuable. Because asana practice uses only body weight and no apparatus (one of its great values), and focuses largely on static held positions, there is a limited amount of strength one can build using only asana.
BODY WEIGHT, NO MACHINES
Yoga practice doesn't use any equipment. Before the 1970s there weren't even yoga mats. Only the body. This is one of the greatest traits of physical yoga practice, which it has in common with calisthenics and other apparatus-free disciplines. It can be practiced by anyone, anywhere. There is no expensive equipment needed; no special outfit or shoes. The poorest pauper can do it as well as the richest king. Such is the great democratization of yogic practice.
But if we take health and function of the human body as one of our core goals (which admittedly not everyone does), we must expand the exercises we use and the tools that help us.
Pulling is something we can't do in yoga. Since it requires an object - like weights - to pull toward the body, or an apparatus - like a pull-up bar - to pull the body toward, there are large systems of muscles and movement that are neglected in the physical yoga practice. All of the strengthening exercises in yoga are pushing actions.
It is no longer a secret that bodybuilders were some of the first modern yogis. In the Ghosh lineage, Bishnu Ghosh worked with Prof. Thakurta to learn "muscle controlling." But even he states in Muscle Control and Barbell Exercises that muscle control - which later influenced his understanding and teaching of asana - shouldn't be attempted by those with weak muscles. He states: "Muscle-controlling makes the muscles shapely and increases the power of application of strength. But I should like to call it the second stage of development, for one should have big muscles before he starts controlling." He is stating that muscle development with barbells should take place before one begins physical control of the body.
One drawback to a weightlifting practice commonly stated by asana practitioners is the fear that increasing strength will tighten their muscles and therefore make them less flexible. Because of kinesiological functions of the body, this isn't the case. Of course, repetitive uses of of the body do slightly change the way muscles work, but this happens over very long periods of time. (Example: a trained long distance swimmer has a body that works differently from a high jumpers.) For a yogi, any development of strength will actually encourage the integration of big muscle groups in the body, as well as deepen their relationship between muscle contraction and relaxation.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga. This blog is about their experience with yoga practice, study and teaching.
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