The 2 Most Important Components Of Every Yoga Pose (Sthira & Sukha)
The yoga styles that are commonly practised today come from a very long and rich history of many different lineages and ancient texts. The ancient yogic text that is most commonly cited as the original source of many of the styles of yoga practised today is a text called The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Sutra’s are threads of wisdom designed to guide us in our yoga practise. Most of these sutras are philosophicial in nature, but the one sutra from this text that relates to the physical postures in yoga is sutra 2.46. which reads STHIRA SUKHAM ASANAM.
Sthira means strength or stability. Or it could mean architecture or structure.
One of the really incredible aspecstof the yoga sutras is that its open for indiivial interpretation. and the meaning is in the eye of the beholder. Whatever you take from these teachings is yours to own and apply to your life how you see fit, so its increvible generous.
Sukha means ease, openness, flexibility or even freedom.
In many ways it’s like the opposite of Stirha.
Asana, refers to a physical yoga posture or a seated meditation position.
So a literal translation of ‘sthira sukham asanam’ is that yoga is a comfortable steady seat, or that the physical practise of yoga should be both stable and also easeful.
If you think of someone in a meditation seat or an upright seated pose, if they were just slumped over and slouching, their shoulders rounded and they’re dozing off, we could say they have too much sukha, or too much ease.
On the other hand if you think of a total over achiever and they’re sitting with their spine stick straight and they’re focusing so hard that their brow is furrowed and their breathing is more strained and their arms are straight like rods. You feel tension when you just look at them. They may have too much sthira, too much stability and rigidity that they’re bringing into the posture of seated meditation.
What this sutra is teaching us is that asana, the postures of yoga are suppose to be this balance between stability and ease or of structure and freedom.
This makes sense for most of life and really highlights this notion that we don’t practise yoga to be good at yoga, but really we practise yoga to be good at life! It’s teaching us to cultivate awareness of the interplay between these 2 principals. We learn to do this within our physical poses on the mat, so that when were in the flow of our day to day life we may also then have greater awareness of how these 2 components are showing up for us in our work, in our relationships and in our general approach to life.
Another thing I love about this sutra is how inclusive it is. Sometimes when beginners come to the practise, they worry about having tight hamstrings or that they think they’re not flexible enough to do yoga and actually this sutra really speaks to how invalid that concern really is. This sutra teaches that yoga isn’t actually all about flexibility, as that would be just sukha and yoga is really about the balance of strength and flexibility.
So if you feel like you’re not flexible, perhaps you’re on the other end of the spectrum, where you have a lot of strength. People who are really flexible are often at a higher risk of getting injured in yoga and need to work on their strength in order to balance their practise.
Think of those images, I’m sure you’ve seen them on your social feed or online, of a super bendy contortionist type yogi. If they didn’t have enough strength to support their extreme range of motion they would easily injure themselves doing those kinds of movements.
If you think of a body builder that has a tonne of strength but they don’t have that openness or flexibility and ease and so tend to injure themselves more easily doing stretches under heavy loads because they are too stiff.
This is really good news for beginners, because it helps us to really understand that there is a place for all body types in yoga, whether you’re on the more flexible side or the stiffer side and that the practise is about bringing balance to that.
To apply this teaching into your practise you can start by setting the intention (sankalpa) at the begining of your practise that you’re going to work to strike this balance of sthira & sukha within each pose you do. Then as you move in to say warrior 2, you can ask yourself, ‘am I strong in my legs, do I feel stable’?
Then you can also ask yourself ‘how is my breathing, is it smooth and steady, do I have some ease around my rib cage when I’m breathing, are my shoulders relaxed, is my face relaxed’?
If you use this strategy within each pose you practise on the mat you will have a deeper, richer and more balanced practise, a quality the yogis call sattva.
Ways to Increase Sthira In A Pose:
➡️ Actively press your hands or feet down into the floor and feel the rebound engagement in your arm or leg muscles. Engage your arm or leg muscles isometrically (depending on which is in support)
➡️ Create a wide base of support
➡️ Using props to increase the points of contact with the floor in some cases will give greater Stirha, more stability. E.g in a wide angled forward bend if you cannot touch the floor, then using a prop will increase the stability of the pose and greater structure.
Ways to Increase Sukha In a Pose
➡️ Focus on elongating or smoothing out your breath, especially the exhalation e.g Ujaii breathing
➡️ Consciously soften your face muscles, your jaw and the tops of your shoulders.
➡️ Imagine even your skin softening
➡️ Focus on the gentle expansion of your side ribs and belly when you breath in and the inward drawing of the belly and side ribs on the breath out.
➡️ Using props can also help to bring about more ease. Using the same example as above, in a wide angle forward bend using blocks will also bring greater ease as you’re now distributing the loads between your legs and your arms.
So we can apply this teaching to the physical postures but, where I think it gets really interesting is when we start to expand this definition to the Yoga with a capital Y which is the yoga that is relevant to our whole life. Remembering that we usually don’t practise yoga to be good at yoga, but rather to be good at life. so how can we take this teaching off the mat and into our day to day life.
The ultimate translation of this sutra that I want to offer is that the practise of yoga is finding the balance between strength & flexibility, between effort and ease or between structure & freedom.
How does this interplay of structure and freedom show up for you in your life?
Maybe you know someone who is all sthira, meaning they have a very strict schedule. They get up at 5am everyday and maybe they run 10km. Perhaps they may be a little OCD as they run their life like clockwork and have a huge amount of discipline and in many ways it probably works quite well for them and they ‘achieve’ a lot.
I’m sure you may also know someone who’s always late and a bit scattered and they’re just going with the flow all the time. They almost have too much ease in the way they run their life.
The question then becomes, how do we make sure we get on our mat and that we’re committed to our practise. How do we have that self discipline, that stirha without becoming militant, or dogmatic. How do we still invite that sthira, the freedom and the spontaneity that we want in our practise and in our life?
Listening to Your body
One skill we need to develop to really honour and apply this teaching is this ability to listen to our body. You might listen to your body and feel tired and how do you know when you feel tired if you need to lie down and have a nap – which would be the sukha direction and how do you know when to kick yourself and push yourself just a little bit.
Maybe you’re tired but its 2pm and you’ve hit a slump and maybe what you really need is to get on you mat and do some sun salutes to balance out our tiredness and then maybe you feel great!
How do you know which to do?
This is a question that’s relevant not only on the mat but off the mat too. Perhaps you’re someone who needs more structure or more freedom? Are you more rigid, in all areas of your life, your relationships, your finances? Maybe you’re always saving and never allow yourself to splurge and indulge yourself now and then, because that’s healthy. That’s this balance of sthira and sukkha, of structure and freedom.
If you only save and never allow yourself that impulse buy, then what’s the point of having money!
One of my favourite sayings is ‘How you do your yoga is how you do your life.’ You can see how this sutra runs deep and really transfers into your life off the mat.
It’s important to remember that it evolves and changes. It’s not like you figure it out and then it stays the same. What you need to do to balance changes, as you change. The seasons are changing, maybe you’re getting older, maybe you’re pregnant, or dealing with young children at home or the death of a loved one, maybe you’re going through menopause. All these things are going to change the balance of sthira and sukha.
I invite you to think of each posture as like a mini laboratory where you get to pull out your magnifying glass and observe with lots of compassion and loving kindness, what your tendencies are. Once you uncover your own personal tendencies towards sthira or sukha within the physical poses, you may also, if you choose to, take it deeper and see how the poses may be a metaphor for your life.