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Mental Toughness Through Physical Strength

Updated: Aug 27, 2021

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I know your frustrations of not feeling as strong as you used to be getting back on track with your fitness goals is "literally impossible" given how much you juggle in the day. Being tired is basically you default state. You've rationalised your lack of discipline by telling yourself how busy you are but deep down, the unaccomplished wellness goals weigh on your mind. I see you and I get it... because I've been there. I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I've resolved to eat better, play more tennis, read more books - only to find my motivation frail. I've stopped making New Year's resolutions many years ago, cause we all know how that one goes... And then when you hear quotes like "the body achieves what the mind believes' (#eyeroll, ahem true), fitness becomes yet another area to feel ashamed about.

It's no secret that mental toughness and physical strength are interlinked - you simply cannot have one without the other. And no matter what goals we set, what aspirations we hold and how we envision our life to unfold - none of it can come alive without mental toughness.

On today's blog I've deconstructed how physical strength, particularly yoga, enhances mental toughness, the key ingredient to becoming mentally tough and the biggest mindset shift we need to make to make fitness or health our priority. I want you to appreciate and benefit from the wisdom of yoga - both on and off the mat - so that no matter what happens tomorrow, you know you've got what it takes to figure it all out...

Physical Strength Builds Mental Toughness

Before I became a yoga teacher, I set a goal of practicing 60 mins of yoga for 90- days. Thankfully, I was able to motivate myself and learn more about this practice which propelled me to re-extend the goal for another 90 days. Then it became an effortless-ish habit. And I've been able to intentionally apply the learnings from my practice to other areas of my life...

So how does it work?

Let's give a quick node to the science of fitness: when you exercise, the feeling is akin to a 'runner's high' thanks to the release of endorphins, dopaphime, serotonin. The result is not only an improved mood caused by hormones and neurotransmitters but it's a testimony to your strength and ability. It's literally one of the best ways to hone your self-confidence and self-belief in doing hard things.

I know a few people who feel stuck or trapped in their lives, devoid of healthy doses of motivation and live with a sense of learned helplessness. And what I see in common in all these people is their lack of exercise. Think about your own life in phases wherein you were largely sedentary Vs when you moved a lot. Weren't you thinking more clearly, less lethargic and more in control of your emotions when you moved regularly? I know I was. So again, if you think of mental toughness as your ability to be in control of your emotions, rather then allowing them to drive you, then a physical asana practice certainly helps build that. Yoga keeps your emotions from being out of whack. If I had to rely on my feelings or motivation levels to practice on the daily, then there is absolutely no way I would have been consistent.

The bottom line is that your physical body is connected to your brain. And movement changes brain activity. So when you are in better balance physically and mentally, you show up differently - you are able to self-regulate your mood, energy and time; you make better decisions and you learn to trust yourselves even more - you trust your ability to lean into discomfort. Simply put, you gain mental toughness.

Yoga's contribution to mental toughness

Let's look at the building blocks of mental toughness - the 4 C's or traits described by author and psychologist Peter Clough in his book "Developing Mental Toughness - Coaching Strategies..."

  1. Commitment - the ability to follow through, consistently

  2. Confidence - that comes by when we do hard things consistently

  3. Challenge - to overcoming distractions, taking risks and learning consistently

  4. Control - ability to keep our emotions in control and be more effective agents in our lives (stronger personal agency).

If you deconstruct mental toughness this way, you can now clearly see how one's' yoga practice supports mental toughness and how a mentally tough person can easily get deeper into his/her/they yoga practice.

How Mental Toughness is Build On the Yoga Mat

  1. Commitment looks like stepping on your yoga mat regularly and sticking to your schedule

  2. Confidence looks like getting into harder, more advanced asana regularly and seeing yourself do it well

  3. Challenge looks like using conscious breathing and maintaining drishti (unwavering focus through steady eyes) to ward off disturbances in the mind; it also looks like adversity training by building muscular strength on the mat)

  4. Control looks like learning to meet our mental distractions with loving kindness rather than judgement. It also looks like meeting impatience in Savasana with curiosity, rather than reactivity. This empowers you to respond and not react when things or people get annoying.

In essence, yoga is about reducing human suffering by increase self-awareness. In a world where mental toughness is about pushing through the hard times, keeping your chin up and reframing negative emotions, yoga asks us to first recognize the full range of emotions and honor it for what it is.

Your work on the mat is embedded in this guiding principle - when you move with an allowing presence of feeling all your bodily sensations, noticing your distractions, your moments of weakness and pure joy, you become more in touch with who you are.

As for me, it was only when I was able to see myself clearly, I had the courage to take some pretty hard, life-changing decisions. If you don't know who you are, it's hard to change.

The key ingredient of mental toughness is consistency

One of the hardest things for me is to stay on schedule. To step on my mat at the same time every day, to ward off the inevitable boredom that creeps in every now and then, to not allow my mind to rationalise indiscipline and stick to the schedule no matter my then motivated levels.

When I taught in a yoga studio in Abu Dhabi, I had a guy who came every week, thrice a week, for over a year at 7:30 am for my Hot Yoga class. Rain or shine - he was there. He inspired me to strengthen my own mental toughness muscle. This is to say that I've found Consistency to be a huge differentiator between distractible and mentally tough peeps. When things get tough for people, they walk the path of least resistance and succumb to challenges. Those who are mentally tough find a way to remain consistent.

Make no mistake, this is serious hard work and takes heaps of patience and time. I still battle with consistency and my mental toughness wavers when the external circumstances feels too much, but omg! the progress is significant.

If you look at all four building blocks of mental toughness - commitment, confidence, challenge and control - the common thread reining past these qualities is consistency. Which is to say that you don't have to be talented, or intelligent to build mental toughness but you just need to keep at it - small wins everyday.

I have written a whole blog about how I build a consistent yoga practice when burned out . If you use this roadmap, I promise you that grit and perseverance will become your defining trait and just working on building consistency in yoga will forge your mental toughness.

The Biggest Mindset Shift to Prioritising Fitness

From my own personal experience and those of my students, it's really quite clear that the biggest mindset shift is dealing with self-imposed limitations. And it's not just on our mat, but in our lives. We settle for jobs we don't love, relationships that aren't fulfilling - we just set our standards really low and the same thing happens on our mats. I see my students leaning towards more of what they already know or maybe set a goal of doing a headstand and think 'then i'm done' But who said headstand makes you a better yoga practitioner? Why not aim to become the strongest yoga practitioner you can possible be - doing all the hard asanas in the spectrum of yoga poses or being able to fully meditate with no distractions for one hour?

One of the most gratifying experience as a yoga teacher is for me to see my students coming more into their own, believing more in themselves, being less afraid and more willing to try the seemingly impossible poses. Oh the joy it brings me when my students start to witness these everyday small wins on the mat which then translates into life-changing transformations.

When you start a yoga program, you tend to spend most of your time thinking about the physical postures— what movements you’re doing, how you are refining the pose, how much you are going to endure being in a pose ,etc. But it is the mental aspect of our training that comes to the fore when we start and learn to get consistent and it is the mental toughness that we build through our practice that makes this work so rewarding and life-affirming.

Here's wishing you a happy, long-lasting yoga practice!

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