The two qualities of sthira and sukha are essential to a yoga practice. Without these two attributes there is no yoga. Yoga is a state of union… mind, body and spirit. Without sthira and sukha, asana practice (physical postures) will remain relegated to the realm of calisthenics, stretching, exercise. There is nothing wrong with exercise. Exercise is fantastic. And we want more. More “bang for our buck” as the saying goes. The Yoga Sutra is the classic work, the earliest known written text on Yoga by Pantanjali and it consists of 196 aphorisms (short expressions of profound wisdom).
In section 2, verse 46 Pantanjali states (in Sanskrit)… sthira-sukham-asanam
Sthira – to be conscious, steady, alert, present, firm, stable
Sukha(m) – to be relaxed, happy, gentle, at ease, comfortable, soft
Asanam – yoga posture, way of sitting, being seated, place
Basically Pantanjali is saying that every posture must contain both of these qualities to the same degree in order for the asana to be yoga. Here are some quotes that you might find helpful in putting it together…
“The posture is firm and soft” ~ Bernard Bouanchaud
“Asana must have the dual qualities of alertness and relaxation… alertness without tension and relaxation without dullness or heaviness.” ~ T.K.V. Desikachar
“The connection to the earth should be steady and joyful.” ~ Sharon Gannon and David Life
“To dwell in the sukha is to dwell in the eternal happiness of the soul.” ~ Sharon Gannon and David Life
Reaching this level of practice is attaining a certain degree of mastery with the asanas. At this point it is really not about putting your foot behind your head. It is about being fully present, steady, relaxed and happy no matter what position you are in. And this you can practice, even as a beginner.
Refining these qualities on the mat spills over to other parts of our lives as well. How would your relationships change or your attitude at work if you consciously cultivated being present, steady, relaxed and happy on a regular basis?
There is a depth to these attributes that evolves over time. Explore this yoga sutra by asking yourself in any posture “Am I… Steady? Alert? Relaxed? Happy?” In response, you may choose to slow down or to back off; at other times you may elect to engage to a greater degree in order to feel more steady or alert. This is the yoga we are cultivating. It is an inward listening and sensitivity to the moment. Not a pushing or striving to achieve something external.
Only each one of us can know for ourselves when it feels right to engage more or when it is time to soften. Our bodies are like a flower, we want them to open and to blossom so that we can experience their beauty, yet if we try to force it they, just like the flower, will break. We have to become sensitive.
Sthira and sukha are physical as well as mental disciplines. Mentally we become alert and happy. Physically we become firm yet soft. This cultivates an exquisite state of being, one where our Spirit can shine.
These qualities are the foundation upon which we are able to connect with Spirit, the Infinite. When we possess these characteristics we naturally dwell in the here and now. Our lives become more satisfying as we become more completely embodied, more fully ourselves.
Throughout history yoga has been used as a tool for transformation and awakening. Asana is just a starting point. Sthira and sukha set the stage for the practice of asana. Cultivate these qualities in your practice and increase your life experience from the inside out.