(First posted 17/1/09)
One of the most important principles of a yoga practice, and specifically, asana yoga practice, is the teaching of “sthira” and “sukha”.
In the foremost yoga text, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, he describes an asana (yoga posture) as having two important qualities: sthira and sukha.
Sthira is steadiness and alertness.
Sukha refers to the ability to remain comfortable in a posture or position. The word also translates as happiness or pleasure.
Renowned Indian yoga master, TKV Desikachar, states that “both qualities should be present to the same degree when practising any posture… without both these qualities there is no asana.”
He adds: “This principle of yoga is fulfilled only when we have practised a particular asana for a certain period of time, and feel alert and unstressed as we practice it.”
This is where the practice comes in: to persevere with the practice, seeking this balance between sthira and sukha.
A story from Indian mythology illustrates how sthira and sukha work together. Ananta, the king of the snakes, offers his body as support to the god, Vishnu. To do this the snake coils his body to form a comfortable couch for Vishnu. At the same time, the snake’s 1,000 heads reach up and spread out like a an umbrella above Vishnu, and on this canopy sits the Earth. The snake’s body is soft and gentle enough (sukha) to serve as a couch, while at the same time is firm and steady enough (sthira) to support the whole Earth.
This is the kind of balance we seek in our practice. By monitoring our body, breath and mind, we seek to hold a posture so that there is both sthira and sukha.
If it’s not, we use a lot more energy holding the position, our breathing will reveal this by being either, heavy and laboured, or shallow and rapid, and perhaps our mind will be distracted, seeking an escape from the position and full of anguish or frustration at the yoga practice, or at ourselves. Whatever the negative emotion or physical stress we might experience, through learning about sthirasukha and how it works will help us to develop our practice.
Once we understand sthirasukha and start to bring it into play with our asanas, we start to see how this is brought to our daily lives. For example, in a crisis we might find that we are able to use sthirasukha to cope and respond appropriately… this is more that just keeping our head, we also learn to maintain a balance, a steadiness (sthira), and a calmness or comfortableness (sukha).
The first steps that we take towards sthirasukha are taken in the yoga postures. First we locate any knots, tension or resistance in our body and release them. Use the breathing to release the resistance, especially the exhalation. We extend the exhalation and take a deep inhalation. And keep this going, but be aware that this is a gradual process.
We must, however, proceed carefully, in this process.
As Desikachar cautions: “If we force the body we will experience pain or other unpleasant feelings and the problems will, in the long run, get worse instead of better. The body can only gradually accept an asana. It is by proceeding gently that we will feel light and be able to breathe easily in the position and therefore benefit from it.”
Although this description uses the word “gently”, it does not mean we do not use our strength and hard work to lengthen or open up areas of our body. We need to appreciate the difference between effort that uses sthirasukha and effort that is harmful and draining: it’s a subtle and fine balance. For example, a seated hip opening exercise such Baddhakonasana might be difficult and feel intense, but we still hold the position, using sthirasukha, to maintain it wisely. Finding the balance in the position between healthy, productive effort and aggressive harmful approach. This is sometimes referred to as “effortless effort”.
In addition to this, perfecting sthirasukha can be assisted by visualising the perfect posture. Even though the body and breathing might not be doing all that we realise is necessary to perfect the posture, visualisation of the elements of sthirasukha in the posture will help you to learn more and improve the asana.
It is often said that asana practice helps us to sit comfortably in meditation. And although that is true, there are some postures that are too difficult to hold for long, yet are practised. This apparent contradiction can also be explained with the principle of sthirasukha. By practising these more difficult asanas we build up our ability to sit and stand for longer periods of time, developing our understanding of sthirasukha. And this can then be used to help us meet with greater ease the demands of daily life.