I've always been a good student. Becoming a teacher didn't change that. Whatever subject I'm teaching is usually the one that I am studying the most. Therefore my shelves are full of books on music history, music theory, poetry, writing, and – of course – yoga. Yoga books about anatomy (lots of those); yoga books on hip openers, forward folds, and movement; yoga books about different styles of yoga – from Ashtanga to Yin; books about yoga philosophy and history; ancient texts revamped with footnotes galore; biographies; books about how to apply yoga to daily life or how to meditate.
Books, books, books. Books reminding me to bend my knees, or breathe through one nostril, or be mindful in the midst of chaos.
It's easy to become overwhelmed with the wealth of yoga advice and commentary and opinions. Sometimes it's nice to get back to basics, to find that one pearl of “ah-ha” that you can tuck into your practice and into your life. For me, one of those pearls is found in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra.
The Yoga Sutra (written almost 2000 years ago) is made up of short verses that outline the basic teachings of yoga. In the second chapter, Patanjali lays out what is called the eight-limbed path (ashtanga). These limbs include a sort of two-part moral code, how we interact with our community and treat ourselves (called yama and niyama); advice on practicing asana (postures); breathing exercises (pranayama); conscious turning inward (pratyahara); concentration (dharana); meditation (dhyana), and finally samadhi, or a transcendent consciousness.
In parts 2.46-2.48, Patanjali gives very simple advice on how to essentially sit still (asana), and states the benefit of sitting still. The sutra that resonates with me is 2.46, which states, “sthira sukham asanam.” This basically translates as, “postures should be stable and comfortable.” Another typical definition is a balance of “effort” and “ease.”
Other translations of sukha include pleasant, delight, happiness, joy, pleasure, agreeable, gentle, mild, virtuous, and easy. Sthira connotes firm, compact, strong, steadfast, static, resolute, courageous; to stand, be firm, to take a stand. Asana can mean seat and posture; it can also mean sitting down, maintaining a post, dwelling, abiding, inhabiting, and being present.
I love that. It's so simple, but it packs a punch.
To abide with strength and courage and resolution, yet be tempered with gentleness and virtue and ease. It sounds so noble.
But when your thighs are burning in Utkatasana (Chair Pose), that can be tough. Or when sweat is dripping up your nose as you fold yourself in half for Padahastasana (Hands to Feet Pose), you may feel anything but noble. But that's where we practice. It's a safe place to work on it.
If it's tough on your mat – a place you come to by choice, mind you – it can be tough when you're in situations off your mat. Out in the Real World. Dressed in Real Clothes. Faced with challenging people, circumstances, and your own less-than-perfect reactivity: can you still manage to be present, to be strong, and to be sweet? Because we're not practicing for the next time we're on our mat, are we? We're practicing for the next time we're off the mat.
In a vertical twist? Contract the space between your shoulder blades to open your chest. Sthira and sukham. Coming to a compromise at home with your spouse? You need some sthira and sukham. Grounding down in Warrior II through your legs so that your heart lifts and your shoulders ease down from your ears? Definitely sthira and sukham. Deciding to commit to a budget so that your stress around finances eases? Sounds like a little sthira yields some sukham.
This makes me think of all the ways I need to find the sweet spot somewhere between steadfastness and mildness in my daily life. The space between the strength of an inhale and the release of an exhale. Between grounding down and lifting up, being connected yet being light. Between effort and surrender, endurance and delight. The different qualities I need to be mindfully present, productive and positive all require this delicate balance between strong and gentle, power and humility: like forgiveness, love, patience, communication, and on and on.
Yoga is a lifestyle; it's not just rolling out the mat. For me, asana goes beyond the postures on the mat. It's the place I take up in my relationships, my lifestyle, and my community. It's my seat. My spot.
Sthira sukham asanam.