Is the Humble Warrior the Most Powerful One of All?

This Silver Surfer catches a wave

I was at my breaking point in the humble warrior pose the other day.

I nearly collapsed, my head inches above my yoga mat as I struggled to hold this bowing-balancing position.

And yet I didn’t break. I warrior-ed through the strain on my legs and steadied my teetering. A flood of energy allowed me to last the full 30 seconds or so on each side.

Where did this power surge come from?

I think it came from humility.

This explanation makes little sense in our dominant cultural narrative about strength. That narrative says power comes from personal willpower and confidence. From domination itself — overcoming obstacles, defeating foes and fears, beating back demons.

Those stories often play in my mind. But not during yesterday’s yoga class with one of my gurus, Stephanie Snyder. She planted the seed, in this class and in previous ones, of letting go of desires. Of being about gratitude and humility rather than ego and individual power.

But paradoxically, this mindset of modesty seemed to fuel my muscles more than I thought possible.

Yesterday’s pose intensified a love-hate relationship I’ve long had with the humble warrior pose — also known as the Silver Surfer. I’ve been drawn to humble warrior for its peaceful connotations. But it’s also one of the more challenging yoga postures, at least for me. It involves lunging forward with one leg bent at 90 degrees, and the back leg straight. The back foot is planted flat and pointed forward at 45 degrees. Then you lean your torso down as far as you can go, arms behind you drawing straight up with fingers interlaced.

Humble Warrior, or Silver Surfer, pose

It requires strength and stamina in the front leg, as well as power in the lower back and core. All the while, you have to keep steady on a narrow base.

Talk about humbling.

Part of my animosity at the pose is that I struggle to do it well. And in that struggle lies deep stuff around judging myself and wanting to be better than others.

But little by little, I’ve been listening to the ancient wisdom that says true power lies in vulnerability. It’s not just yogis like Steph Snyder or pastors like my own Maggi Henderson who preach this message. Now it’s becoming a major strain in the business-leadership literature. Author Brene Brown has become a rock star at corporate conferences for her talks about vulnerability and the way courage is inseparable from exposing one’s fears and doubts.

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness,” Brown writes.

Brown’s words also speak to the pop-culture name for the humble warrior pose — the Silver Surfer. A short Internet search didn’t answer my question for how the posture got that that alternative title. But I’m guessing it comes from the way this yoga stance looks a lot like the Marvel Comics hero of that name. The Silver Surfer often is shown riding his flying surfboard positioned in a humble warrior-like way.

The Silver Surfer

Silver Surfer makes sense as a name for the yoga pose not only for the physical link, but also for the story of this comic book character. He is a servant. In particular, he agrees to serve a monstrous being named Galactus as a herald to keep Galactus from consuming his planet. Later, the Silver Surfer betrays Galactus. But he retains the identity of a servant in a way — this time as a protector of humanity on earth.

The thing about this humble hero, though, is that he’s crazy fierce. He has access to the “Power Cosmic,” which gives him superhuman strength, enables him to travel faster than the speed of light, and lets him produce bolts of energy capable of destroying a planet. He also has telepathic powers, and can influence human emotion.

Funny thing, humility gives ordinary human beings some of those skills. Exposing vulnerabilities triggers empathy in others and makes them receptive to changing their mind. When we acknowledge our own weak spots, we are better at seeing the range of emotions and motivations of others — a kind of telepathy.

Humility may not let you zap a planet into oblivion or race across the universe at warp speed. But there’s something about the strength piece. People have demonstrated extraordinary feats of strength and endurance in the service of others — it really is possible to lift a car to save someone.

Yesterday, I think I tapped into that Power Cosmic. The “intention” I’d set at the beginning of the yoga class was precisely to tame my ego. To let go of fears that I need external trappings of success to validate my worth, and to focus more on serving others.

And it was this goal that came to mind — or perhaps to my heart — as the humble warrior got hard. As the sweat splashed down and my legs shook, I suddenly felt buoyed. My efforts were about something more than myself. They were about being a better dad, husband, friend, citizen. And that was like catching a wave of extra juice that I rode to the end of the pose.

We continue to hear from arrogant, prideful leaders about their supreme power. (“I alone can fix it.”)

Don’t be fooled. Warriors of hubris may be strong. But the humble warrior is the most powerful one of all.

I write about work, culture and masculinity. Concerned about the present but hopeful about the future.

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