How to Practice Softness

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Softness is something common to nearly every form of East Asian art, from tai chi to calligraphy to healing. It’s also a foundation for how we share Strala Yoga, across all our yoga, tai chi, and qigong classes, and our Strala Yoga teacher trainings. It means being movable so I can be moved, without needing first to overcome my own rigidity and tension. It’s a practice that begins with your breath, then expands out to the connections you can make with your whole environment.

But softness isn’t common in usual yoga, fitness, or therapeutic practices, because it’s not so much in our lives now.  As one example, yoga in the last many decades is more focused on rigidity and tension, moving one isolated part of our bodies at a time, into an idea of what things should look like.  It’s the opposite of the harmony we need with our bodies, to achieve softness, mobility, and ease, especially when challenges come our way. So these usual practices are reflecting the tough parts about how we live, rather than working to fix them.

There’s a question comes up so often in yoga: “Should I be locking my knees and elbows – arms and legs held stick-straight – in all the poses?”  It’s a good question that opens the door into mobilizing so many aspects of our lives, through the practice of softness. Once we see this new path, we can also see something about locking, and about rigidity.  It’s kind of like spending our time going around locking every door we see.  It might be better to stay open.


How to practice softness

Of course it takes a long while to get really good at softness – to be movable without always moving, bendable without always bending. But on both chemical and neurological levels, this is central to the results we want, to the progress we want.

Locking our joints I understand, I’ve been there. It’s a show of strength, and feels like it keeps us safe. But what we want is real strength, not a show. Holding tension generally leads to aggravation and injury, along with reduced ability to do what we want to do. So locking, flexing, engaging, extending, rotating – all these things don’t so much give what we’re looking for.

It’s really what most of us are already too good at – tension and stress – and reminds me of that old saying “Bringing our neuroses into our cure.” That this saying exists tells me it must be something we all do pretty often, just being human.  So I think East Asian arts have this a little better, a practice that leads to harmony rather than rigidity and disconnection. And if you’d like to read some more about the science on this, Harvard Professor of Neurology Dr. Rudolph Tanzi wrote a bit here.

Luckily, softness gives us a different way to practice, that begins with a few easy steps:

1) Shimmy. Stand comfortably with your feet about shoulder-width apart, take a deep breath in, then let it go. Now give your whole body a shimmy from your center (more your belly than your hips). See if that shimmy can spread equally through all of you, out through your arms and legs. If it gets blocked by locked-up knees or shoulders, walk it off. Then come back, take a deep breath, and repeat your shimmy. You’re heading for something called “wave propagation” – when you begin movement with the energy and direction of your center, this movement carries through your whole body, without getting blocked.

2) Breathe. Now that you’re shimmy-able, take a long deep inhale. So deep that your breath lifts up and expands through your whole body. Hold for a moment at the top of your breath. Now let it go, with an even longer exhale, letting your whole body release, relax, and settle down. Go through a few of these breaths. When you breathe in, wait for the feeling of lift to be real in your body, then let it lift, arms included. Same thing when you breathe out. Wait for the feeling of easing down to be real, then let your whole body ease down. You can let the movement in your body be just the lift and lower, or you can add a whole-body shimmy and wiggle on your exhales, to see how this softness is working for you.

3) Repeat. Take a walk around, and repeat the whole practice from your shimmy.

Just as much as this can be in your yoga and tai chi, softness is an all day, everyday, everywhere practice you can carry into your kitchen, meeting room, or wherever you’re getting around each day. It takes practice, to replace all our old habits like tension and rigidity, with new habits of moving well, in harmony with our whole selves. We’ve been listening to as many Dalai Lama podcasts as we can lately, and it brings to mind now something he said.

“If you want to do something, if you want to change something big, don’t be in a hurry.  Don’t be impatient.  Being impatient will create failure.  Because anything big takes time.  At least a few years of practice.  So first be sure that you want to do this, that it’s important to you.  And then take your time with it.  Be patient, with you.” – The 14th Dalai Lama