Benefits of balance
Inspired by my recent class teaching theme I wanted to add more depth to the conversation about the topic of Sthira and Sukha, so here we are.
Before we delve into understanding this sutra (verse) in more detail I’d like to take a moment to explain more about the yoga sutras as a whole.
"Patañjali’s Yogasūtra is one of the most important texts on the practice of yoga and essentially an instruction manual for living a satisfying and meaningful life. Of course, as the gold standard of yoga manuals, it presents the principles of Yoga as well as the possible goals that may be achieved through Yoga. However, its main purpose is to provide instructions for developing the state of Yoga and maintaining it in your life.” (1)
Asana is our physical yoga practice, and what is most commonly offered in a yoga class. It’s our main connection with the teachings of yoga in these modern times. However, if asana is the only aspect of the yoga teachings that we are connecting with, we’re missing out on a lot, asana is only ONE of the eight limbs of yoga outlined in the sutras.
There is much wisdom to take from the sutras (as well as from other contemplative traditions), so it’s really worthwhile to consider the depth and breadth of what they have to offer.
Right, back to the concept of Sthira and Sukha.
The verse from the Sutras is: “Sthira sukham asanam”.
This is commonly translated as, “postures should be stable and comfortable.”
If we look more specifically at each word:
Sthira could be understood as steadiness, strength, to stand or to be firm.
Sukha is often translated to easeful or joyful, agreeable, and gentle. The word literally breaks down to ‘good space’.
There are many layers we can consider in understanding sthira and sukha (and how we balance these two qualities).
On the mat
The sutra initially guides us to understand this in each different posture, but it’s also one to feel-out during the container of a whole yoga class.
Within each yoga posture we should be looking for this balance of effort and ease, of a sense of stability and softening.
Some questions to enquire with yourself about could be:
>>> Do I have a tendency towards wanting to experience a really strong physical practice, or a more gentle one? And it’s not that we have to change our natural inclinations, but it’s definitely a good idea to have some awareness of it, and in doing so, reflection about whether it serves us well or not?
>>> Can I keep a steady and soft rhythm of breathing and a general sense of ease in my experience of breath? Unlike some other forms of exercise or movement we don’t want to be forcing our breath too much, if you’re feeling a difficulty in maintaining an element of sukha with your breathing during class it’s probably a sign you need to slow your practice down a bit and invite in more opportunities for sukha in your movements too.
>>> What about my thoughts, do I come with expectations that my practice should look or be a particular way? Here I’m reminded how easily we’re influenced by how yoga is often presented by the media, and how prevalent it is that yoga is depicted as bending our bodies into big, impressive, pretzel type shapes. It’s not a very accessible impression and it’s not a fair representation of what we’re trying to achieve with the physical practice either. The shapes are really just a vehicle to the internal inquiry, and big shapes are definitely not a requirement, rather, moving mindfully is! There is also a common tendency to think of yoga asana as purely exercise, or a good stretch. This is not so surprising given that modern yoga in western society is generally depicted as part of the exercise industry.
Exercise is generally a great way to stay healthy and happy, however looking at yoga just from that angle, might not only limit the many other wonderful benefits of yoga, but can even go as far as having a negative impact on our bodies. One example, is the mindset of ‘no pain, no gain’, or similar. These could easily slip into our yoga practice if we're already following this mindset in other parts of our lives. With such a mindset it’s difficult to find a balance of sthira and sukha in yoga.
In considering this questions for ourselves we’re going towards what yoga is really about. Awareness and inquiry! If we’re not approaching our asana in this way we’re likely to be just continuing with our stuck or repetitive patterns and our yoga may not really be serving us that well.
What modern science has provided evidence for is that yoga asana is very much about working with the nervous system, giving the possibility to guide us away from the sympathetic nervous system being overly dominant and keeping us in an almost constant state of ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response. Helpfully, yoga can engage our parasympathetic nervous system to potentially bring us back into more of a ‘rest, digest’ state, which is so important in managing our levels of stress and keeping us healthy.
Hence if in our asana practise we’re always pushing ourselves or seeking mostly the sthira quality in our experience, we’re missing out on one of the main benefits of yoga - allowing our nervous system to find a way to balance by bringing on more of the sukha quality and experience.
Hareesh Wallis puts it well: “Releasing the physical effort to hold the perfect pose and also the mental striving to artificial ideals of perfection”.
Off the mat
We can do a lot on the mat that teaches us to respond in a better way off the mat, and this teaching of sthira sukham asanam is, I think particularly useful to consider in our daily lives as well.
It can offer inspiration for our entire system to move towards a more balanced state, and this too is very much one of the intentions of yoga.
In practising being stable and comfortable ON and OFF the mat we’re aiming to invite in more balance to our whole life. What might this look like?
Perhaps your body being strong enough and comfortable enough, your breath being smooth and of appropriate depth, your mind being focused and not so easily distracted, and your emotions perhaps being less tumultuous. In a more balanced state we’re also more easily able to weather the inevitable changes and difficulties that life brings.
So in looking at elements of your life you could follow a similar line of enquiry with the questions:
>>> What can I observe in various aspects of life, in my general way of being? Are there similar Sthira and Sukha patterns there too? Or what other patterns can I see? I don't want to be too prescriptive here, as the point is for you to have the inquiry, but aspects that you could consider reflect some of the ideas we talked about above. Do you have a tendency towards pushing yourself hard a lot of the time - perhaps taking on a lot of commitments or activities, keeping super busy to the point of it feeling somewhat overwhelming? Or do you have the tendency towards taking life too easy, not challenging yourself with something new, or pushing yourself outside your comfort zone from time to time in order to experience personal growth?
>>> What might I need to do in my yoga practice to break this pattern, to find more balance? Do you need to invite in more sukha or more sthira? Can be be more aware of your thoughts and mindset? As mentioned above, the beauty of yoga asana is that just by doing something different on the mat you may find some gradual changes going off the mat with you into your daily life. Especially if we embrace the idea of it being an ongoing enquiry. This is not something that you're going to get ultimate clarity on in just one or two classes, the ideas I'm introducing here are really for your life work, and in yoga they may need to stay with you for sometime before you notice a shift.
If you try to cultivate something different/opposite on the mat specifically to address what you’ve deemed an unbalanced quality in your life, then there is the possibility for things to start to shift, on and off the mat. You could start moving towards more balance.
“The key is to pay attention and respond to how you feel moment to moment rather than imposing a structure from the outside. If you are paying attention, you will have a feel for the pace at which you will be able to live your life on any given day. And pace is crucial. If you are running a marathon and you spurt and sprint the first 100 meters, it will be almost impossible for you to finish the race. Many people don’t seem to understand this; they believe they can extend themselves in all directions indefinitely. But overburden the body and mind consistently and you will end up dwelling with sukha’s evil twin dukha, or “bad space.” You will become increasingly exhaustive, reactive, and impatient. Eventually you will fall ill.” (2)
There's also a wonderful quote from Joseph Campbell which also speaks to this idea of balance: "The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe. To match your nature with nature.”
In drawing this piece to a close, I'll leave you with an invitation. After reading this - play close attention to your own asana practice over the next little while, being open to a more balanced approach with the sthira and sukha qualities in mind. Over time there may be the potential to break out of your normal habits and create a few new healthier and more balanced ones.