By: Monica Ott
Sthira Sukham Asanam: “Asana is a steady, comfortable posture” -2.46 The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
“I mean, it feels good. Is it supposed to?” This was a response I got today from a regular student (who was in a reclined pose, Apanasana) when I asked her how she felt as I was gently grounding her leg. I realized that her response was a bigger question that the other students in the room had as well: ‘Am I allowed to feel good when I practice yoga?’ Taken aback for a moment, I had to address the room and say: “Yes, we are allowed to feel good.” Not only are we allowed to feel good, we should feel good doing yoga. Otherwise, why are we practicing?
Just last week I took an injury prevention training with a well-respected yoga teacher and we learned subtle ways to help adjust a student with a particular injury so as not to cause that injury strain in certain asanas (postures). But, if we don’t have an injury, why do we continue to be of the mindset that we need to strain, to push beyond our limits, to experience ‘no pain, no gain?’ What is the point of doing yoga if we exit the stress of our daily lives only to enter into more stress on our yoga mats? This question led me back to a very popular yoga sutra ‘Sthira Sukham Asanam.’ It states that each posture should be ‘steady’ (sthira) and easeful’ (sukha) and once that is achieved then the mind won’t be affected by the dualities of nature; we will find that perfect balance in our Hatha (‘Ha’/Sun, ‘Tha’/Moon) Yoga practice.
The disconnect, I realized, is that many of us are trying to force our bodies into shapes that are unnatural for today’s culture and many yoga teachers aren’t updating their teaching methodology to accommodate for these changes.Thousands of years ago, Hatha Yoga was created by the great rishis and sages in order to purify the body so that ultimately we can purify the mind: “The main objective of hatha yoga is to create an absolute balance of the interacting activities and processes of the physical body, mind, and energy. When this balance is created, the impulses generated give a call of awakening to the central force (sushumna nadi) which is responsible for the evolution of human consciousness. If hatha yoga is not used for this purpose, its true objective is lost”* Only when we recognize that we are constantly evolving, then we are able to cultivate the ‘sthira’ and the ‘sukha’ in our postures. The cells of the body are always changing and whether we’re dealing with an injury or have been sitting all day, our asana practice should be evolving to support these changes.
There are 84 asanas in the ancient yogic tradition but only 33 were described in the yogic texts as the essential poses. “Asanas were done to evolve the consciousness from the lowest to the highest state. Therefore, some asanas imitate the shapes of the bow or boat; plants like trees and the lotus; reptiles, fish, birds, saints like Vashishta and gods such as Nataraja”* The essential asanas were really meant to prepare the body to sit in meditation and were practiced in a very specific way according to their culture. In today’s Western society (which is a very forward bending, sitting culture) we have to evolve some of these asanas to fit our body’s needs. Just like our iphone software gets updated from time to time, the rigidity of Warrior I from 100 years ago must be adjusted slightly to alleviate the stress we acquire in our bodies from our daily habits. To think that we have to force our hips to face forward while keeping the heels in a straight line (when we’ve been hunched over the computer at our desk all day) is missing the point of ‘sthira’ and ‘sukha.’
We have to remember that our yoga practice is a practice of self-inquiry, of contemplation, of realization of our higher consciousness. Why not bring this sense of curiosity to our asanas and start to explore the unique ways that our specific body’s structure (bones, muscles, and tissues) moves? “We have become disconnected from our body’s intrinsic intelligence. This dims our recognition of our inherent beauty, charm, vigor, and vitality, and healing power, and eventually blocks their flow completely. As a result, our ability to be happy with what we are and what we have, our ability to embrace all and exclude none, our ability to cultivate and retain a robust and energetic body, and our ability to heal ourselves and each other plummet. But as soon as we restore our connection with our body, our inner balance and harmony return. We become healthier, and we have ample time and energy to discover the purpose of having a human birth.”** When we get familiar with how our own body moves and lives in the shape of the pose, then we can understand what aggravates and causes strain in a particular area and what allows for a more even distribution of weight and energy throughout the entire body. Once the body works as a whole unit then when we can drop into that feeling of steadiness and ease even when the pose is challenging. Is is possible that even a more challenging asana can feel good? When ‘sthira’ and ‘sukha’ are present, then we can transcend the body and start to let our asanas take us into a place of meditation. With that, the spirit awakens and like a superhero waiting for his/her ‘bat signal’ we can answer the call to our own divinity and that is something that we can definitely feel good about.
Practice: Become very mindful in your asanas and start to really listen and understand the sensations of the body. Am I feeling my muscles work and stretch or am I starting to feel pain in my joints? Am I able to breathe in the pose or am I tensing up? Keep asking questions until you’re comfortable. This deep receptivity will help you know when you’re feeling safe and supported and when you’re not.
*’Hatha Yoga Pradipika’ by Swami Muktibodhananda
**’The Practice of the Yoga Sutras: Sadhana Pada’ by Pandit Rajmani Tiguanait, PhD