Sthira Sukham Asanam | Mark Whitwell on Yoga Sutra 2.46
Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga
In Patanjali Yoga Sutra the quality of asana is described in the beautiful phrase Sthira Sukham Asanam (YS II.46). Sthira means strength, alertness, energy and intensity and sukha means softness, comfort, openness and serenity. Right asana practice should have the dual qualities of sthira and sukha present in equal measure as a balance of opposing forces.
How do we do achieve this?
We want to practice with open hands and to keep a gentleness in the fingers. Let all the joints be at ease. In standing asana, keep the front of the feet active and the musculature of the legs engaged (no dead weight through the heels). Move from the strong centre of the body and avoid placing tension on the outer limbs.
Now, simply participate in the natural receiving and releasing process of the breath. Asana facilitates the union of the inhale with the exhale, that’s all. So start where you are with simple asana and be with your breath. There can be a challenge as you explore the range of your breath capability but never so much that you are straining for breath. Your practice should be pleasurable and energizing rather than stressful and depleting.
Remember, Yoga is not physical or spiritual gymnastics and there is no goal. Don’t worry about trying to do impressive asana or to practice like anybody else. We are deeply programmed to take up disciplines like Yoga in order to try and change ourselves into an ideal person. Practice without this burden as a pure pleasure, as your intimate connection to Life. Nobody has to be like anybody else. You are flower blooming in your own garden.
The openness and ease of sukha enters our practice when we accept who and what we are. If we have shoulder problems or are restricted in the breath, we start from there and move intelligently. These qualities flourish in us less when we impose them on ourselves and more when we let the natural, intrinsic intelligence of the body function.
What should our mind do during asana?
The balance between sthira and sukha also applies to the mind. Ideally, the mind is relaxed and comfortable whilst also being focused and attentive. My teacher Desikachar says, “It is attention without tension; loosening up without slackness.” If the mind is distracted during our asana practice then it is not really asana.
As we practice we discover for ourselves how to apply the right amount of effort (sthira) so that the mind’s tendency to wander is gradually replaced by its wonderful capacity to focus. It is not a matter of mind control. The mind ceases to wander when it become absorbed in a single direction, rather than when it is forcibly restrained or controlled.
The necessity for a personalized practice is clear. What effort without struggle means for one person will be different from what it means for another. We all have different constitutions, energy levels, health conditions, family circumstances, goals, and work lives that need to be taken into consideration.
“We cannot escape the need for adaptation. Adaptation is the application of certain principles, to achieve certain results. It implies: Knowing where the person is now and knowing where we want them to go. Adaptation is the means used to bridge this gap.”
For example, finding sthira-sukha for one student may require a morning practice of several rounds of Surya Namaskar followed by a long pranayama; for another, a lying down evening practice with long exhales may be appropriate; for a religious student, mantra, puja and guru devotion may be essential to the cultivation of this quality of mind; for a non-religious student, practice may need to be placed in the context of the student’s relationship with the natural world: to visualize the strength of the sun and the softness of the moon during asana. The student’s whole being must be considered — their body type, age, health, and cultural background. In order to become absorbed in our practice, we must be interested in our practice; it must be made relevant to our life.
In this way, the entire tradition of Yoga can be thought of as a vast treasury. The full portfolio of asana, pranayama, meditation, mantra, yantra, and visualization are available to be individually applied.
This is why group classes where everybody’s doing the same thing are a problem or a compromise.
“We are not magicians,” Tirumalai Krishnamacharya would say, “You cannot teach Yoga in classes, it must be adapted to each individual.”
Yoga is Relationship
The relationship between your asana practice and all aspects of your life is silken smooth. If you practice your asana in the way that is right for you, then the twin qualities of sthira and sukha will permeate your life. To be in life with these aspects in balance is the same quality of energy it takes to succeed in the world without creating stress.
There are so many opportunities to be very effortful with people and to make things happen in the world: publish books, build websites, build apps, run around the world meeting people, see this person, organize this event and so on. In that struggle, we eventually fall over depleted.
Whereas if we go about our life’s work with the balance of intensity and calmness, in which we keep the prana in the spine, then we are far more effective. You can be very effortful in your work whilst ensuring the quality of sukha — serenity, calmness, relaxation — is there.
So find a good teacher who really cares about you and who is educated in the tradition of Yoga. From there, invite the beautiful qualities of sthira and sukha into your practice and into your life.
*For an introduction to personal home Yoga practice you can join the by-donation online immersion course at www.heartofyoga.com/online-immersion
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Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga