What does it mean to be strong?
From the perspective of a movement teacher working in a (truly excellent) mainstream American fitness club, I have seen wildly differing opinions about what strong is and strategies on how to get it.
Am I strong if I can bench press my body weight but can’t run a mile? Am I strong if I can do 108 Sun Salutations but can’t hold in plank position? Am I strong if I can run an 8-minute mile but can’t touch my toes?
And what about strength of mind, emotion and spirit? What does it mean to be a strong teacher, friend, or parent? In the past couple of months, I’ve heard a gaggle of people at red, white and blue podiums talk about what it means to be a strong leader. Based on that, as a country we seem to mistake bullying and posturing for strength.
So what does it mean to be strong?
I’m not talking about the definition which covers an array of bases including “aggressive; willful.” Of course, yes, that’s how we use the word, but if someone is aggressive, are they strong?
I’m also not talking about strength in a narrow category. Not just “I have strong hands” but “my body is strong.” Not just “I am strong at making spreadsheets” but “I have a strong intellect.” Not just “I am strong for my kids” but “My spirit is strong.”
I’m interested in what it means to embody strength. This kind of embodied, systemic strength needs three qualities: variety, balance and kindness to the most vulnerable.
Strength is embodied when it is expressed in a wide variety of ways. If I can do pushups all day but move mechanically and without grace or fluidity, am I strong? If I can run sprints but can’t do a forward fold, how strong am I really? The body thrives by moving in multiple styles. Training and conditioning that variety doesn’t mean I necessarily excel at all things equally but rather I have access to and familiarity with a wide range of ways of being in my body.
The same is true in anything I do. If I want to be a strong friend, I have to be able to listen as well as share. A strong writer is able to have the discipline to research and be precise with attributions and also have the spaciousness and imagination to let creativity flow. If I want to be a strong leader, I must be able to listen to and synthesize many perspectives and have the courage to offer wise direction.
An essential part of embodied strength is the ability to know what movement is appropriate in the moment and to be able to transition easefully. A truly strong body is one that can move from fast to slow, tight to loose, up to down with grace and ease.
Just like in life. A strong parent knows when to shift from setting clear consequences to softening and listening. An artist strong in her craft is able to be inspired by the work of others and seamlessly move in her own direction. A strong leader can make a personal one-on-one connection in one moment and in the next effectively communicate to a group.
When I’m good at something or have found that it works in some situations, it’s natural for me to use it more often or even exclusively. My carpenter husband often says that if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If a leader’s only approach is put-downs and insults, everyone starts to look like a target. And if drumming up anger and playing on fear is the only note played, it’s a monotonous song.
Kindness to the Vulnerable
My body, like the proverbial chain, is only as strong as its weakest part. If I push and train but ignore that my knee hurts and needs healing, my strength is severely limited. If I ignore the most vulnerable parts of myself, my whole physical system is compromised. And it’s not just my actions toward my weaker places, but my thoughts and words, too. Feel the difference between saying,
I have this stupid bad back so I can’t do everything I want to.
I am healing my lumbar spine and make choices based on what feels best for it.
First date advice suggests paying closer attention to how your dinner companion treats the waiter than how she treats you. The former is far more telling to the strength of her character. The teacher who approaches the newest, most apprehensive student with kindness, flexibility and welcome is teaching from strength. A community that ignores the inconvenient needs of their disabled members weakens the whole. It is a weak leader who proclaims the powerless to be the problem.
Embodied strength is different than specific strength. It doesn’t imply perfection or mastery of everything. Embodied strength, rather, cultivates and values a variety of skills and is able to transition wisely and with balance from one to another. Embodied strength approaches the weakest and most vulnerable with compassion and kindness.
Anything else is the illusion of true strength.