Patanjali described yoga asana as “Sthira Sukham Asanam” or ‘a steady, comfortable posture.’ Sthira refers to steadiness and firmness in your yoga practise and sukha involves gentleness, softness and ease. Cultivating steadiness and ease in each pose requires a combination of effort and release. These two Sanskrit words are opposite, but equally important. It are qualities to nurture on and off the mat. Sthira and sukha are complimentary poles, like Yin and Yang and they teach us the wisdom of balance. If you find balance, you will find inner harmony, both in your practice and in your life. The way you practice yoga mirrors the way you live your daily life. Therefore, yoga can be a great tool for developing greater insight into ourselves and the world around us.
Sukha can also be translated as pleasurable, joyful, agreeable, easy, comfortable, light, happy, prosperous or relaxed. It is the opposite of discomfort, suffering or pain. By cultivating sukha, you incorporate a light, mindful approach to the asanas. Your pose is joyful and soft.
You can translate sthira as stable, firm, resolute, steady, alert, motionless or changeless. The pose must be strong and active, if you would like to embody sthira. It also refers to the ability to pay attention and to be present. It is the opposite of agitation. It includes both physical and mental stillness: a controlled, fully engaged body and a focused mind.
Finding sthira and sukha in your yoga practice can truly take it to the next level. These qualities are accessible in every asana, but it’s up to you cultivate them. The breath naturally embodies sthira and sukha. You can inhale sthira with each breath and channel this new energy into strength and steadiness. There is a firmness to the inhale, since there is an element of strength to the diaphragm filling and pressing downward. With each exhale sukha or release is possible, since the volume of the diaphragm decreases and the pressure moves up and air is pushed out from the lungs. The breath ultimately represents the quality of each asana and is therefore the best place to begin. If you cultivate steadiness and ease of the breath, your yoga asanas will blossom.
In your asana practice
According to Patanjali, an asana is properly performed when – in the muscles and the mind – there is stability and alertness without tension as well as relaxation without heaviness. If you practice yoga with strength and in a relaxed manner it gives rise to harmony with the physical body. You can look for example at warrior II pose. You keep the hips squared forward with proper placement of the feet which requires balance and grounding. The holding of straight arms further increases the intensity of this pose. Sthira is found with the proper foot position and in the ground of the outer back foot, in sinking down into the pose with strong legs and in the breath. Ease can be found with relaxed shoulders, with a gaze upward, a soft forehead and with each exhale.
Integrating in your daily life
The next challenge is to find this delicate balance between the effort of sthira with the comfort of sukha in the rest of your life as well. A lot of people struggle to find balance in their lives. We feel exhausted, depleted, drained and find it hard to unwind during our free time. The first step is self-study or Svadhyaya (the fourth of the five niyamas). If you learn to recognize when you are out of balance, you can start to change this imbalance. If you bring a balance of sthira and sukha into your life you cultivate a habit of facing difficult moments in your life with a soft heart.
Too much sthira
In our busy society we usually have too much sthira or effort. We’re working too hard and we would like to do too many things after work and as a result we feel tired and exhausted. That is why burn-out is such a common phenomenon nowadays. So how do we incorporate more sukha or ease or lightness into our lives? One important thing is the breath, make sure you breathe deeply. Take time to nourish and nurture yourself, rest and be still through for example meditation and/or pranayama. You will drain yourself if you keep on living a faced paced life. It seems like we lost our patience in this society; everything needs to be done quick and easy; eating, cooking, sleeping, driving and so on. Ready made meals and magnetrons are apparent in almost every household and our children need to be joining at least one sport club and an art class. By giving yourself permission to relax, you will give people around you permission to relax as well. Here are a couple of things you could do to incorporate more sukha in your life:
- Practice restorative yoga poses (for sure you will develop more patience)
- Go on a nature walk
- Read a book
- Enjoy the process of slow cooking
You could also try to bring attentiveness to the action you’re doing and at the same time find a way to relax and be comfortable as well, for example while you’re driving in heavy traffic. In regards to relationships, you could focus on being grounded as well as kind, open and receptive to others.
The next level
If you learn to relax your muscles in the yoga asanas, you will be able to achieve greater comfort. As a result this will allow your mind to calm and makes it easier to focus inwards. Through meditation you can access the higher states of your mind. It is not without reason that the meaning of asana is ‘a comfortable steady seat’. The development of sthira and sukha in your asana practice is a great way to guide the physical body toward becoming more open and receptive to the effects of meditation. Your balanced practice of yoga asanas will prepare you for the next stages: pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. So you can focus on the ultimate goal of yoga; a non-physical uniting with the Self or God and reaching ultimate freedom.