Kristen Mack tackles Sthira-sukham asanam in this week's installment of Yoga Living Project. Read below to learn more about this approach to asana (the yoga poses) derived from the Yoga Sutras of Pantajali. Do you have a topic you’d like to cover? Email Austin at
Sthira-sukham asanam PYS II.46
Posture (asana) should be stable (sthira) and comfortable (sukha)
Patanjali doesn’t spend a large amount of time discussing asana in The Yoga Sutras, although today most people typically will recognize asana, the physical aspect of yoga. The bulk of the sutras deals with developing meditative absorption (samadhi), and classically, asana talked about the quality of the seat for meditation. Far from a good bit of the yoga practiced today. How does sweating through an hour or more of asana, in whatever variation you choose, translate to samadhi? And why is it important to practice with stability and comfort? It may be more relevant than you realize.
In the technology driven world of bigger-faster-better-more, we tend to pull ourselves further away from our innate rhythms. We no longer are able to tune in and it is far easier to tune out. In doing so, we invite struggle, injury, and illness. From the yogic perspective, we are depleting our prana, or life force energy.
Yoga asks us to tune back in, to get familiar with those rhythms. An obvious gateway into that is to tune into the physical sensations and rhythms in asana. Sthira is the ability to hold a steady and firm posture, as in Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2). When a student is safely aligned in their pose, muscles firing at appropriate levels, breathing fluidly, and working towards quieting the mental chatter, they can find steadiness as well as comfort in their body, eventually using those experiences to fuel their day to day encounters. I like to think of it as working, but feeling buoyant, rather than heavy and stagnant. Exerting to the point of fatigue, pushing past your threshold, breathing erratically or not much at all, is not working within that balance, that give and take of sthira sukham. Sound familiar? Me too. We’ve all been there. Showing up at class, depleted physically and mentally. Knowing that we should take it easy, but that pesky competitive voice tells us to push harder. Rest? Why would I rest? Keep going, do more, no slowing down! Or perhaps you are on the other end of the spectrum. You know you need movement, but you’re feeling lethargic and stagnant, and mentally heavy. When we ignore the body’s signals that we are no longer comfortable, we once again are moving further away from our rhythms. And sure, you might get a great work out, but that’s not really the point.
I’ve often scratched my head at the idea of steadiness and comfort. Effort and ease. There’s nothing particularly comfortable or easeful for me about chaturanga, one of my least favorite of the asanas (feel free to insert your least favorite asana). It puts stress on the shoulders, neck and low back. Pushing through, even when your body has sent signals that it is not ready or has had enough, can wreak havoc on your shoulders. Yet, when you are able to let go of the need to push through, taking care to find safety and stability, you might get a glimpse of that easefulness and the dreaded asana becomes more forgiving and, well, easier.
Think about how that translates to life beyond asana. Maybe, like many of us, you don’t like to slow down. No time to eat breakfast, just grab the biggest pot of coffee and bag of sugar, and power through! Pushing through fatigue to meet deadlines, working or playing well into the night when your body is begging for sleep, working despite your body sending you signals that you are not well-eventually your body will force you to make a hard stop. Who needs sleep, am I right? Well… actually you do. We all do. Balancing the daily effort with rest and rejuvenation, along with taking the time to properly fuel the body, is essential to building prana.
One of my favorite translations of this sutra 2.46, is this: “Resolutely abide in a good space”. In my practice, this translation takes the struggle or push and pull out of it. I can reflect on this thought and make changes, big or small, to help walk myself back to this good space. Realizing when I am depleted and not in this good space takes practice. Knowing what to shift to bring me back to this space takes practice. Remembering what I need to do to keep me in that good space takes practice. Thank goodness for yoga! So, when you’re doing your sweaty warrior dance, you can pause and ask, am I resolved to be in a good space? Look at it physically-are you breathing fully and completely? Mentally, are you focused on your breath, movement, and sensations? Is this something that you can practice for a long duration, or will you crash and burn after a short while? Then, start to take that resolve to abide in a good space into your relationships. How am I taking care of myself? How am I taking care of those that I care for? What am I doing to pull me out of my natural rhythms and out of that good space, and how can I get back there?
Know that throughout your life and practice, your needs will shift. Your asana practice will shift and change, as will your relationships, and circumstances. Yoga gives you the tools to navigate the chaos of life, developing good habits and a better sense of your needs. And for many of us, it starts with asana.