This month I’m co-teaching a course on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. In preparation, I’ve been exploring some of the text’s key themes in my regular weekly classes. I’ve taught about staying focused and stilling the mind through somatic awareness (citta vritti nirodha); learning to honour the truth (satya) of your body and your practice as you move; and, most recently, how to cultivate a sense of integrity in practice, based on a foundation of steadiness and ease (sthira sukham).
These two qualities are taken from 2.46 of the Yoga Sutras, where Patanjali says that asana, one’s seat, should be sthira, steady, and sukha, relaxed. While it’s likely that he was referring to the posture of meditation, these qualities can also be applied to the practice of yoga asana in general. In my experience, when we are able to bring a sense of stability and ease into each posture we do, we start to discover what it means to practice with integrity.
One important implication of sthira-sukham is that we take each posture to its natural edge, without falling off the other side. First, we enter the posture and find the peak point of our capacity at that time. Then, we apply sthira – by staying or holding there – and sukha – by relaxing deeply into that intensity. Sthira, the more ‘yang’ quality of effort and holding, works the body and invites the mind to become focused, still and deep; sukha, the more ‘yin’ quality of ease, simplicity or effortlessness, relaxes the body and lets the mind become open and vast. What arises is an awareness that is both focused and pervasive, that holds the necessary physical actions of maintaining the posture in the foreground while maintaining a global, background sense of the whole body, mind and heart.
On the other hand, if we push beyond our current capacity in the practice, we generally see two results. Firstly, the movement or posture becomes ‘sloppy’ – our alignment will go off, gaze will harden or roam around distractedly, breath will become jagged and edgy, and, very frequently, the mind starts to become agitated and lose its depth of focus on the body. Secondly, going beyond what can be held with integrity creates more tension in the body-mind, which is the opposite of what we actually want to achieve in yoga practice. Tension blocks our awareness, as well as the flow of energy in the body. Prana has a harder time entering structures that are locked up, and going beyond our current capacity inevitably leads to more tension, frustration, perhaps even injury, as well as a buildup of unconscious resistance in the system.
You might be able to see this in the photos – on the left my updog is largely a “pose” for the benefit of the camera, while on the right the camera captures a genuine, balanced version of the asana. I could clearly feel the difference too – while posing (left-hand photo) my neck muscles felt very tight, and I could feel my eyes straining and my breath huffing. On the other hand, for the right-hand photo I had a sense of grounded ease, my breath was smooth, gaze steady and mind clear.
It’s the same in the set of photos for downdog too. In the first, I’ve hyperextended in the upper body, leading to a feeling of tearing in my shoulders and crunching in my neck, which impeded the smooth flow of my breath. This is a common way that downward dog gets exaggerated, especially among people with greater flexibility. In the second photo, I’m pushing the ground away strongly with the hands to lift the hips, but without creating excessive curvature in the back – my lower ribs are drawing in, my shoulder blades are separating and my shoulders are rotating inwardly so the entire length of the spine is extending. (I’m also micro-bending the elbows and keeping the inner elbows facing each other to avoid hyperextending.)
In general, when on your mat, let yourself be guided by the feeling of the posture – it should feel balanced, with a sense of combining effort and ease, steadiness and relaxation. A skilled teacher can guide you, over time, into identifying this sense of sthira and sukha on your own in each posture, so that ultimately you are the one setting the bar and deciding how to approach each movement. Of course, sthira and sukha, the indications of our own edge, change every day and with each practice. What was possible yesterday may not be today, or may feel a little too “sukha”, opening the way for us to go further. This is not necessarily a linear progression – you probably won’t just be getting better and better at every posture every time you practice – but a creative and cyclical process of transformation that includes and makes room for our constantly changing body and the changing circumstances of our lives.
Ultimately, yoga is an introspective practice. In other words, it’s about how it feels more than how it looks. Part of the magic of yoga is that the external form of the postures is not actually the main point. In this sense, it’s really about awareness, and it’s really about you as an individual. The practice is an invitation to explore the feeling of the postures, the way your body comes in and out of them and what sensations, reactions and energetic movement they provoke in your body and mind. When we have an awareness of the body that is both focused and pervading, we enter each asana with a sense of sthira and sukha; then, we are practicing with integrity. We are honouring the body by working just at the edge of what is possible for us, without trying to push beyond. Slowly, over time, our body guides us through and beyond our limits – but this can only happen if we are willing to listen to it and work with integrity every time we get on our mats.