“I am a rock … And a rock feels no pain.” – Paul Simon
The American fitness industry loves to make promises of rock hard bodies, tight abs, firm butts — and to promote the tough trainers who will get you there. Our culture finds valor in strength and has a belief that strength will protect us. And for us, strength tends to mean “hard,” “tight,” “firm,” and “tough.”
Notice that all of these “rock hard” words have multiple connotations. In addition to meaning something stony and unyielding, these words can also mean “difficult,” “strict,” “severe,” and even “brutal” or “cruel.” I love feeling strong, but is this the body I want to live in?
Right now, squeeze your fist or your belly to make it as hard as you can. Notice the distinct sensation of “hard” and “tight.” For me, it is a sensation of restricted breathing and limited range of movement, but I also feel somehow protected and impenetrable (which may or may not be an illusion, depending on what I am protecting myself from). What is the sensation for you?
I begin to wonder about the veracity of “rock hard” and “tight” being directly synonymous with “strength.” Maybe it’s not so simple. I’m not denying the seduction of the “hard body” siren song. On the other hand, I’m certainly not advocating inactivity, or ignoring the rampant obesity that plagues our country and many others. I am suggesting that the tight-body-hard-body approach to strength and power is missing at least half of the story. At least.
When I’m coaching new Nia teachers, the first and last thing I say is, “The greatest gift you can give your students is to relax.” In the middle, I say what Carlos Rosas told me, “You have to be willing to suck.” In that willingness and that relaxation is power.
Taoists practice sensing anything blocked or tight in the body and say, “Ice to Water, Water to Steam” and feel the contraction dissolve. (The ever-insightful Leo Babauta shared his take on this practice in his Zen Habits blog not long ago.)
In my yoga class, we focus on alternating between fully engaging and squeezing the muscles and then with just as much focus and energy, letting them go. The ability to both contract and release gives the body a fluidity and grace that is often lacking in the strong, hardbodies of bodybuilders or powerlifters. (I once saw a bodybuilder dive into a pool and the poor guy nearly sank like a stone.)
Even if I go beyond the physical, I realize that the strongest people I know are the ones who admit when they are wrong (or scared, sad, or insecure). The strongest people I know show their soft underbelly (literally and figuratively) and offer the world an open hand rather than a clamped fist.
Millions of people have watched Brene Brown’s TED Talk about the Power of Vulnerability. If you’re not one of them (or if you are and you haven’t seen it lately), take 20 minutes to listen to her beautiful and powerful look at the kind of strength it takes to be whole-hearted and how embracing our imperfection is essential to living a life of connection and love.
What if there is greater strength in softness and vulnerability than in hardness? What if we softened our eyes, softened our joints, softened our belly instead of clenching tight and sucking it in? What if we used contraction with the intent of releasing even more? What if softening is where it’s at for health, well-being, and strength?
Do you want a strong body to live in? Do you want to be a strong person in the world? I do, for sure. And I’m looking at re-working what “strong” means for me. Can I cultivate a deep strength that comes from softening? How do I speak when my lips and jaw are relaxed? Do I have more options and possibilities if my joints are spring-loaded and soft? Is it possible that the greatest benefit of full-on contraction is the complete release that it offers? What would it feel like to soften into fitness?
In a world where hardline politicians come to the table with no intention of listening, where tight-lipped preachers pound pulpits and proclaim the one and only way to pray, where even the news is hard ball, it might be time for a different approach.
Let’s play with fitness and health from the perspective of soft instead of hard. As always, I would love to hear how it goes for you.