Have you ever watched someone thread a needle using funny and useless facial expressions – as if that would help to get the thread into the small hole? In a way that’s what this sutra is about
sthira sukham asanam
“Asana must have the dual qualities of alertness and relaxation”
Translation by TKV Desikachar
This sutra is a preamble to sutras which are dedicated to the topic of asana. It is what Patanajali chose to say first and foremost about all asana practices – and on the face of things it seems like a paradox.
- “Sthira” comes from the root “stha” which can be translated as “fixed place”. “Sthira” can be translated as fixed, stable, changeless.
- “Sukham” comes from the root “kha” which can be translated as space or ether. “Sukham” can be translated as soft, comfortable, happy.
TKV Desikachar explains:
“It is attention without tension, loosening up without slackness”
Examples in practice may shed some light on the duality of sthira-sukham:
- For some people raising the arms straight up above the head is not useful – for an effective practice they may need to bend the elbows and relax the shoulders. The correct position is personal and strikes a balance between active effort in the arms, neck & shoulders (sthira) and softness in the elbows & shoulders (sukham). Stubbornly pushing for straight arms is overdoing (excess sthira) that compromises other physical aspects. Underperforming by releasing the elbows and shoulders too much (excess sukham) makes the posture much less effective.
- For some people keeping the legs straight in forward bends severly limits bending in the spine. By slightly bending the knees (sukham) they can gain access to bending the spine (sthira). Stubbornly keeping the legs straight actually defeates the purpose of forward bends – keeping the legs straight becomes the focus and effort (wrong sthira) while the spine barely bends and remains largely inactive (wrong sukham).
- Breathing to your full capacity is another delicate balance. Aspiring to long and steady breaths (sthira) requires delicate attention and adjutsments in breath and asana (sukham). Over exertion of the breath (excess sthira) quickly breaks it and the flow of practice. Underperformance of the breath reduces the effect and intensity of the asana (excess sukham).
- A present mind is key to achieving a balance between alertness and relaxation. A mind that wanders off can lead to both slackness (excess sukam – in postures where effort is required) and tension (excess sthira – in postures where forces such as habit or gravity take over). A mind that is anchored in past asana achievements can also lead to both slackness (excess sukham – when past experience indicates an asana is not accessible) and tension (excess sthira – when past experience is attached to successful practices in the past).
How can such a balance be achieved in practice?
Krishnamacharya mentioned two tools: Vinyasa and Pratikriyasana. Vinyasa is about gradually placing the body in a posture – the number and character of the steps required may differ for individual practitioners. Pratikriya-asana are counter postures that are used to counter excess effects of practice and to create smooth flow and transition in asana practice sequences.
Desikachar adds that this sutra is brief because asana practices should be learned directly from a competent teacher. A balanace of sthira-sukham is personal and ever-changing. There are no set rules or recipes for achieving such a balance. It is a pursuit that requires careful observation and attention. It is not so much a result of practice but rather an artful quality that can guide and shape it.
I would end this article with two additional interpretation that have crossed my mind for meditating on sthira-sukham:
- Well (sukham) – Being (sthira)
- Correct (sukham) – Effort (sthira)
I invite you leave a comment sharing your experiences of sthira-sukham in practice.