I’ve been thinking a lot about strength lately, and not just the type that has to do with barbells and free weights. Now don’t get me wrong, I love barbells and free weights and they certainly have their place in making a person strong. True strength, as I am learning now daily, can be cultivated in a variety of ways. Sometimes we take it upon ourselves to become stronger, sometimes life forces us to do so or crumble under its events. But what is it really that constitutes true strength?
Often society tends to emphasize putting our head down and pushing through rather than actively engaging in our feelings as they arise in the moment . We are told to “keep a stiff upper lip”, that “big girls don’t cry”, and that “there’s no crying in baseball” (just had to add that last one for fun…) The biggest challenge for me as a trainer is to get clients to slow down in their exercises. It’s easy to get caught up in this grunt and get it over with mentality but doing so jeopardizes what could otherwise be an exercise in growth. In order for muscles to grow they need more time under tension. If you rush through reps and sets without paying attention and time to the muscle group you are working with the results won’t be nearly as dramatic. Time under tension, being with the discomfort, creates growth and change. Interesting that what is true for the body is also true for the mind and spirit.
When performing exercises clients often joke that if the exercise is uncomfortable it can’t be good for them. Unfortunately we don’t live in a world that is free from discomfort, or even pain. Furthermore, never challenging the body to go outside of our comfort zone eventually leads to even greater discomfort in the future. A life of inactivity leads to physical and mental stagnation and eventually the body will rebel. Diabetes, osteoporosis, and arthritis are only a few maladies that can either result from or worsen due to physical inactivity. Working to keep the body strong and breathing through moments of discomfort leads to more comfort overall. What if, instead of running from it, we got a little more comfortable with discomfort? What would this mean for our body, how would our lives change?
The old saying “no pain no gain” has been transmuted to “no strain no gain” and I believe the latter to be more true than the former. There is no need to push to the point of injury, there is such as thing as going to far. To know what is the right amount of struggle for you you must slow down and listen. Breathe and be present. Use your workouts to teach you more about not only your body’s but your whole self’s limits.
I find strength training is a particularly poignant topic for women. Many women, my former self included, prize being thin over being strong. Why are we so attracted to “skinny”? What makes boney more attractive than muscular? Why, when it comes to our bodies, is less more? In my line of work I hand women weights often with varying response. Some are accepting of the challenge and are inspired by the idea of becoming stronger. Some tell me they fear looking like a man and aren’t really into having muscles. To these women I say that is unfortunate because having muscles is a non-negotiable part of being a human being. Whether they are flaccid or toned is up to you.
In our culture women are often thought of as the weaker sex. Generally we are more in touch with our emotions, a product of both nature and nurture. In defense of the weaker sex theory and in order to take a more feminist approach to life I used to lift weights aggressively to fly in the face of convention while laughing off more holistic forms of exercise such as yoga. I wanted to be tough, and to me this meant denying the softer, more emotionally connected side of myself. What is often overlooked is how truly powerful feminine energy can be. Through yoga practice I’ve come to integrate characteristics such as intuition, emotional sensitivity, and sensuality into all aspects of my life. Isn’t the feminine archetype, which brings consciousness into form, the epitome of strength? Integrating the physical and emotional is a much more satisfying and sustainable way to live.
This past weekend J and I went to Arlington National Cemetery. I was caught off guard as I walked up to the Kennedy gravesite and buried next to Jacqueline Onassis was her stillborn daughter. I remember reading that she had a daughter that was stillborn but it surprised me to see her recognized in such an honorable and public way. I had come to believe that mothers of stillborn babies belonged to a somewhat secret society and seeing this beautiful tribute from a time when stillbirth was even less talked about than it is now warmed my heart. As we walked through I saw many graves, like that of my daughter Eve’s, scattered around the cemetery. Babies with just one date marked on their tombstone. It struck me that Jackie Kennedy, a woman known for her stoicism and grace, chose to recognize her daughter in such a public and emotional way. Seeing soldiers, known for their strength and emotional control, validate the life of a child that never took their first breath gave me hope for the human race as a whole. There is so much more to strength than meets the eye and so many ways to cultivate it within ourselves. As a self-proclaimed oenophile I can’t help but draw an analogy between cultivating strength and the fact that struggling vines make the best wine. Maybe, when it comes to leading a more vibrant richer life, a little struggle goes a long way.