This post is an assignment for the teacher training program I'm attending at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, TN, India. The assignment is to write about Sthira Sukham Āsanam, based on my experience with my personal practice that was assigned by my mentor. Please do not copy or reprint without prior written permission.
Yoga Sutra 2.46: Sthiram sukham āsanam means “The āsana should be simultaneously strong/alert and relaxed”. It is also sometimes described as being equal measures of effort and ease.
I’ve long since been aware of this concept and I have applied it in my personal practice and in my teaching for many years. I have put it into practice by taking care not to overexert with a practice that it too physically challenging. For years, my understanding of sthira sukham went hand in hand with the concept of ahiṁsa, non-harm, which I interpret to mean not practicing in a way that is mostly effort because that can cause harm.
Now that I have had the benefit of an intensive month of IYTTP (International Yoga Teacher Training Program) and daily āsana classes at KYM, several sessions with my KYM Mentor, Padmini Madam, and daily āsana and pranayama practice on my own in February, I have a new perspective on the concept of sthira sukham āsanam.
Purpose of the Breath in Āsana Practice
One of the most important purposes of conscious breathing in the āsana practice is as an indicator of one’s capacity, and by extension, an indicator of sthira and sukham. When the practice is too vigorous for our capacity, the breath becomes labored, we are no longer relaxed. I have learned to pay attention to my breath and slow down, do fewer repetitions, or take a rest when my breath tells me I have exceeded my capacity.
If we recall Yoga Sutra 1.2, Yogaḥ citta vṛtti nirodaḥ (The purpose of yoga is to stop the fluctuations of the mind.), we understand that the purpose of yoga is not a cardio workout, where we make the heart rate beat faster and we breathe heavier.
The purpose of yoga is to calm the mind, and the breath is a reflection of the mind. When the breath is agitated, the mind is agitated, and when the breath is calm, the mind is calm. So in the āsana practice we consciously and consistently practice how to keep the breath calm because that teaches us how to keep the mind calm.
Sthira and Sukham Outside the Asana Practice
Breathing well (calm, slow, deep breaths) has always been challenging for me. For many years, when I would try to take a deep breath I would feel an immediate and involuntary contraction in my chest that prohibited deep breathing. Breathing deeply made me feel like I was drowning.
Over the years, with breathing-focused meditation practices, that tension eased up a bit and I have been able to breathe a little better.
Another challenge that I’ve struggled with for many years is a very busy mind. Especially during the last 7-8 years, trying to juggle the business side of running my yoga studio, teaching yoga, motherhood, being a wife, not to mention running a household and trying to maintain my health, I have always been an extreme multi-tasker.
In our culture, multi-tasking is praised. We combine activities constantly, and in all settings. We respond to email while sitting in a meeting. We watch a movie or read a book while using the stair climbing machine. We believe this is how we get more done in less time.
For years, my mind has been in a state of constant state of sthira, effort, busy-ness, and I’ve noticed over the past few months that my busy mind (and my body, and my self) has become tired from multi-tasking.
Returning from India, I re-established my practice with a new perspective. My practice includes āsana, pranayama (breathing practice), and chanting. I strongly believe in the concepts of Sutras 1.12, Abhyāsa vairāgyām tannirodhaḥ (With practice and non-attachment we [stop the fluctuations of the mind].), and 1.14 Satu dīrghakāla nairantarya satkāra ādara āsevito dṛḍhabhūmiḥ (One must practice earnestly, for a long time, without interruption, for the practice to be firmly rooted.”). So even if I have challenges with my āsana, or more relevantly, my breathing, I don’t quit. I persistently practice every morning.
If one day my breath is long and the next day my breath is short, I think about why that must be (svādhyāya). I remember the correlation between the breathing and the mind, that if the mind is agitated, the breath is agitated, and I try to determine what agitation must be happening in my mind to cause my breath to be short. Perhaps I am distracted by a difficult conversation I had the day before, or a project I will work on today, or perhaps I have not been sleeping well. Usually it is something like this causes disturbance in my mind, and thus, disturbance to my breathing.
Now that I have understood that my breathing disturbance is usually caused by a mind disturbance, I apply the concept of sthira sukham to my breathing practice. The breathing should be energized, yet easeful. The breathing practice encourages my mind to be focused and calm.
Through my breathing practice, I am trying to increase the durations of my breath. I want to be able to take slower and longer inhales and exhales. Two weeks ago I noticed that the simple practice of counting the duration of my inhales and exhales, and counting the kramas (steps of exhalation) was causing me stress. I was having an unintentional and uncontrollable internal competition to try to increase the duration of the breath.
After a few days of practice, I recognized this stress was causing too much sthira, so I abandoned the practice of counting. I began breathing with focus on ease, prioritizing a breath that is comfortable. Each day the breathing feels more comfortable, and even if I am not counting, I sense that the duration is slowly increasing.
I was worried about having taken the decision to abandon counting (and krama exhales), which Padmini Madam had assigned, but I confirmed in my mentor session this week that it was a good decision and I should continue free breathing for now.
A few weeks ago, when I was starting to understand about sthira and sukham in my breathing practice, I had a big revelation that has been very important to the way I live my life. I realized that I was forcing the breath much like I have been forcing life. I have been driving all my activities too hard.
Through willpower and determination, I have been driving my business, my children’s homework and activities, everything. Because of this, I have compromised sleep, nutrition, and leisure. My life sthira and sukham have been out of balance.
So now this is what I am working on, creating sthira sukham in life. I do not carry my laptop everywhere I go, as I did in the past, so that I can work during every free minute. I do not eat and work at the same time anymore. In fact, we no longer eat take out for dinner most nights. Now I cook (which I love) and we eat at home every day. When I’m working, I close the social media tabs on my internet browser so I don’t get distracted by message notifications. I’ve stopped working on my computer in the evenings so that I can be present with my children.
I’ve made, and am continuing to make, many changes to reduce multi-tasking so that I can get my sthira and sukham in balance. I already feel the difference. It is very nice to feel ease which has been missing from my life for many years. I am getting more sleep, my family is eating better, my relationships with my husband and my children are strengthening. We are all feeling the benefits of the change.
And as a surprise result, my productivity has greatly improved. I work fewer hours, but my focus is much stronger and I complete more work than I was able to before. Oh, and I've lost 10 pounds, probably because I'm less stressed.
I have long since believed that the lessons we learn through āsana translate into our real life as well. This sthira sukham āsanam is the latest lesson that has carried from āsana, to pranayāma, to life, and I am very grateful for it.
Zelinda Yañez is a yoga teacher specializing in therapeutic yoga and private instruction. She is the owner of The Yoga Room in Round Rock, Texas.