In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the definitive text of Classical Yoga, there are very few aphorisms devoted to asana, the postures of yoga. One of these few states: sthira sukham asanam (2.46). The posture should be steady (sthira) and comfortable (sukha), or even sweet (as in sucrose). Since Patanjali’s yoga is primarily directing us toward meditation, he is talking about a sitting posture. Anyone who has tried to meditate knows how distracting it can be to feel unsteady or uncomfortable when sitting for meditation. From this perspective, practicing yoga postures is intended to prepare the body for sitting meditation.
However, for practitioners of modern postural yoga, this aphorism has wisdom as well. In an aphoristic text, such as the yoga sutras, the word order is important, and here the first word is sthira, steady. It makes sense that this is the prerequisite, as one is not going to be comfortable in any pose in which you are not first steady. In our asana practice, steadiness in the posture is cultivated first through the foundation, whatever it is that is on the floor. Once the foundation is steady, a clear and judicious engagement of the muscles will contribute to more steadiness.
But Patanjali suggests there is more than simply being steady in the posture: it must be comfortable, even joyful or sweet. What creates sweetness in the pose is proper alignment. If the pose hurts, clearly one must back off and find another approach.
I often say that your yoga practice provides a context for watching your mind. In the context of your asana practice, what brings steadiness and sweetness to your mind and your overall state of being? Are you perpetually thinking about the past or future, approaching poses aggressively, watching others, making judgments? Drishti (gazing at a particular point) is a wonderful technique to cultivate steadiness. When the eyes are wandering, inevitably the mind is wandering. Ujjayi breathing will help to both steady the mind, and bring a sweetness to your practice. By listening to the breath, you will notice discomfort and adjust your posture accordingly. Moving the prana through your body with the breath will create a sweetness. Noticing your thoughts, then returning to the breath as a focus can attenuate repetitive, perhaps destructive, thought patterns .
What unfolds on that 2 by 5 foot rectangle of a mat is likely to be representative of how you approach many aspects of your life. As suggested above, watching and working with your mind on the mat, will show you how you can do the same in the larger context of your life. Considering a deeper meaning of this sutra, asana can be thought of as your overall stance or posture not only in your practice, but in any situation, a relationship, even your life as a whole. In these situations, too, you want to be steady and sweet. I have known many physically accomplished yogis, whose presence is far from sweet. Below are some practice and contemplation suggestions to help you live these yogic principles.
– For one entire yoga practice, or for a week, focus primarily on your foundation. Notice those parts of your body that meet the earth. With your feet, notice the 4 corners, notice whether you favor the inner or outer edges, whether your weight is toward the front or back of your feet. For your hands, notice if you are evenly rooting through the perimeter of the palm, or whether you tend to hang back toward the wrist or outer edge of the palm. Notice as well when neither of these are part of the foundation, and how your body meets the earth.
– For one entire practice, or for a week, focus primarily on your breath. Notice when your mind wanders from the breath, and gently return to it. After practicing in this way, journal on what types of thought patterns tend to emerge during your practice. Are these useful to you? What was the effect of returning again and again to the breath?
– Begin to notice your stance in the world and journal on any of the following. What is your general outlook on life? Are you steady? Do you generally feel comfortable? Are you sweet? Are you balanced between being stable and sweet?
– Using two pieces of paper, or pages your journal, title one “steadiness” and one “sweetness,” Under each of these, make two columns labeled “+” and “-“ (or some other label that makes sense to you). Then in the “+” column, write down aspects of your life that enhance steadiness, and in the “-“ column, those that detract from your steadiness, and likewise those that enhance your sweetness, and detract from your sweetness. Journal on how you can encourage more of those aspects that enhance rather than detract. Try implementing one or two.
– Journal on other ways you see these two qualities manifesting in your life.
If you would like to learn more about Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, check out my self-paced course here