To the uninitiated, yoga is full of strange contradictions. I remember struggling my way through one of my first vinyasa yoga classes, practising plank, chaturanga, down-dog sequences until my triceps burned and my core was on fire. I couldn’t understand why everyone said yoga was relaxing.
I struggled with this for a while. On the one hand, I felt that I should be working hard, building some upper body strength and practicing relentlessly until I achieved more challenging postures. But on the other hand, teachers kept telling me to accept myself exactly as I was. To surrender. To find total peace.
I felt like I couldn’t win. If I worked hard, then I was striving, and failing to accept the present moment. Perhaps I was missing the point of yoga altogether. But if I didn’t, my practice felt lazy and lethargic, and I lost the motivation to keep showing up for it. Because surely absolute acceptance and “listening to my body” means not bothering to get out of bed at all? Especially on cold, dark winter mornings.
Sthira sukhum asanam
What does this mean?
Well, asanam refers literally to the “seat” of the posture. Traditionally the only yoga posture worth considering was padmasana or lotus pose, the posture used for meditation. However, through this, we still gain valuable insights into an approach worth extrapolating into our other yoga postures and beyond. The rest of the saying can be translated as:
Sthira - “steady”, “stable," “strong,” or “grounded
Sukhum - “comfortable," “with ease,” “with sweetness,” or “peaceful.”
So sthira sukhum asanam tells us that the posture must be simultaneously steady and strong and full of sweetness and ease. (Learn more in Suffering & Sweetness: Understanding Duhkha and Sukha to Deepen Your Practice.)
Sounds contradictory, but actually mastering this equilibrium is the key to mastering our whole yoga practice. If we can be both - if we can make effort, gain strength and steady ourselves while at the same time finding more ease, then we’ve unlocked something in ourselves. Life no longer needs to be a choice between effort and surrender - we can cultivate and reconcile both qualities.
How Does This Work in Yoga?
Let’s take sthira sukhum asanam as an intention for your practice.
Adopt a simple seated posture - either kneeling or cross legged, with props to support as required. Allow yourself to ground into the posture. Notice the comfort and ease that comes from allowing yourself to settle here. Feel for the natural ease in the posture, the release of tension as shoulders fall away from the ears and the skin of the face softens. This is sukhum.
But notice also sthira, the strength and steadiness needed to hold yourself here and to keep your spine upright and alert - feel the stabilising muscles of your trunk and torso. To fully understand the difference sthira makes, see what happens if you allow yourself to absolutely surrender to gravity. Let go of all effort and see where your body ends up. It’s likely your chest collapses, your spine rounds, your breathing becomes constricted and your head either falls, or your chin juts forward to compensate. How comfortable do you feel now? Stay for a few breaths, and it’s surprising how quickly your body will start to feel the strain of this apparently relaxed position.
Yoga teaches us is that actually we need the strength and the steadiness in order to truly feel the ease and the sweetness.
It’s the whole premise behind meditation practice. No, it’s not easy to sit in meditation, continually refocusing on the breath even though the mind will try anything to get you to leap to your feet and distract it again. But it’s through that discipline, that gentle, steady strength that we can connect with the goodness and peace that was in us all along. (Learn more in Stop Judging and Just Delight in Your Meditation Practice as It Is.)
Likewise, what happens if we neglect the ease in the approach, and try to force our way into a more enlightened state? Well, we’ll have a pretty hard time of meditation. We’ll bring more agitation to our already restless minds, and turn our practice into just another battle of endurance. Even if we do keep this up beyond a first session, it’s unlikely to bring us much joy in the long run.
We Need Both
What sthira sukhum asanam reminds us is that we must cultivate both qualities, the sthira and the sukha in our yoga postures and our lives.
Rather than being a paradoxical pair, we find that they actually complement and support each other. The answer to my earlier confusion, as to whether I should be making an effort or surrendering was... both. I needed to find the sweetness and ease within my effort, and the steadiness and strength within my surrender.
You might find yourself at different times being drawn more to one quality or the other - favouring the sthira or the sukha. This is natural. We live in a constant state of flux. The key is noticing when one quality disappears altogether, and intentionally inviting it back in.
Going Beyond the Yoga Mat
What implications does sthira sukhum asanam have for our daily lives? It's particularly useful as an approach for working with goals and targets.
Take new year’s resolutions as an example. Perhaps on the 1st January, we’re all effort, determination and strength. We see ourselves charging ahead into the new year, transforming ourselves one spinning class, healthy meal or educational book at a time. But if we only consider the strength aspect of our resolutions, and we neglect to find the ease and sweetness in our approach, it’s likely we’ll burn out fast. By February, those resolutions feel hollow and neglected, sad ghosts of our ebullient past selves.
To breathe life back into them, we need to reinstate our resolutions, but this time, cultivating the sweetness and ease too. On a practical level, that might mean sinking into a hot bath at the end of the day to ease gym-sore muscles. It might be sprawling out in front of the fire after finishing each chapter of our reading to rest our minds and let the learning percolate. It might even be slowing down to really savour the healthy meal you’ve prepared for yourself.
Even more crucially, we need to cultivate an ease in our approach, especially given the number of things that happen that are beyond our control. Setting ambitious goals is easy, but managing disappointment when things don’t go to plan can be harder. Maybe you sustain an injury that undermines your fitness goals, or perhaps a colleague lets you down. An approach that has both sthira and sukha lets you meet the disappointment with compassion, maybe even finding its hidden sweetness, while still maintaining the steadiness to carry on.
In the words of Pema Chodron:
“Rather than being disheartened by the uncertainty of life, what if we accepted it and relaxed into it? What if we said, yes, this is the way it is; this is what it means to be human, and decided to sit down and enjoy the ride.”
This enjoying-the-ride is key to finding the ease within the effort.
Sthira Sukhum Asanam - A Powerful Mantra
So next time you find yourself silently screaming in your plank pose, bring yourself back to sthira sukhum asanam. Relish the strength and steadiness you are cultivating, but invite in the sweetness too. Look for where you can soften and ask yourself, where is the space, where is the joy?
When you’re able to find ease even within the drama of the posture, then you’ve found your yoga practice.