In yoga this morning I’m finding my feet in the flow of poses, feeling the ripple of my spine, bobbling, tipping, falling over, then finding my feet and spine again. When I get myself into a pose, I am determined to hold it, keep it, not lose it. That’s when Liz, our instructor, glides past my mat and says, “Be soft and strong at the same time.”
I lose my drishti and eyeball her. I so want it to be one or the other. I want my poses to be all soft and bendy or I want them to be crisp and sharp. I don’t even know how to do both. My brain and body look at Liz and knit their collective eyebrows, “At the same time?”
Even though it feels unfamiliar and even counter-intuitive, I practice being both soft and strong on my mat. Over and over, I plant my feet and lengthen my spine and get strong and grounded without caving my chest or collapsing my core. And then I soften: soften my jaw, soften my eyes, soften my heart. There is a sensation when I can find the balance – a sweet spot of both/and.
It’s no shock that I deal with this bamfoozelment off the mat, too. With people, to be perfectly candid. I am forever figuring out how to be soft and strong at the same time.
I want to be kind. I value kindness. Kindness feels good. I never regret kindness.
So I practice kindness as I make my way through my day. I practice sending kindness to that zipperhead who just careened past me on the highway. I let my tight hands soften on the wheel. I melt my scowly eyebrows. I practice kindness with the person who cannot put their phone down ~ not at the table, not in yoga, not while driving. I breathe softly and wish her well. I practice kindness with the friend who is so stuck in his self-sabotaging pattern ~ a friend with whom I’ve had this exact same conversation 6000 times.
And yet. I want to be strong. I value strength. I don’t want people to walk all over me or take advantage. I want to call it like I see it. I want to have a backbone.
So I practice standing up for myself. I practice saying what is so and doing my best to tell the truth even when it’s difficult or embarrassing or not what the other person wants to hear. I practice asking for what matters to me…without being controlling … or saying what doesn’t need to be said … or overstepping my bounds or….
How do I do this? How can I be soft and strong at the same time? How can I be clear without being defended? How can I be kind without caving? It feels like when my first ballet teacher told me to draw my front ribs together. Um, what? I don’t think I even have muscles that do that. Be soft and strong? Be kind without caving? I don’t even know how to begin.
To unwind this contradiction, I’m bringing in the big guns: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. He said,
Cherishing others does not mean ignoring our own needs and caring only for others….While one form of self-interest is selfish, stingy, and irritable, another is wise self-interest that understands that benefiting ourselves and helping others need not be contradictory.
As is often the case with HH14, I find myself wanting him to explain more instead of turning away from the microphone right when he’s going to tell me how to do it.
If I sit with his words, though, just as if I sit with the sensation in a yoga pose, I can feel the difference between “selfish, stingy, and irritable” and “clear and strong.” I feel my attachment to controlling my friend or other drivers and phone users — and that attachment is not strength. I feel my resistance to the way people are and the nature of things — and that resistance is not soft. What I’m looking for is a middle way just like when I can feel my feet planted and my spine lifted while my neck and shoulders relax.
Like everything, it is a practice. “Soft and strong” and “kind without caving” have distinct sensations. The practice is becoming more familiar, more intimate with how that middle way feels and when I lose it — which I do, over and over — to keep coming back.