In the Patanjali Yoga Sutra tradition, there is but one guideline for asana practice – that it is steady (sthira) and joyful (sukham).
sthira sukham asanam PYS II.46
The connection to the earth should be steady and joyful -and-
Asana should be steady and joyful.
Looking at a yoga sutra that comes just before this one, we see that Patanjali has provided a pathway to practicing sukham:
Santosad anuttamah sukha labhah
By contentment, supreme joy is gained.
To practice joy is to first practice contentment – santosa. The origin of the word contentment is “contain”. When we are in a state of contentment, we contain everything we need to be happy. Nothing is missing. Nothing. The heart of this sutra is not that we need to work towards being content, but that we already are. Right now, we have everything we need. We are whole.
This is sometimes expressed as the ability to want what we have, rather than have what we want.
We have all experienced this. Moments when we look around us and realize that there is no where else we’d rather be. Or we look at our companion(s) and realize there is no one else we’d rather be here with. Nothing is missing. We are happy.
The sutra on contentment is asking us to stop leaving it up to luck and happenstance, to a perfect concentration of circumstances. Instead, intentionally shift perspective to contentment, to nothing missing. Try it out. Even if you have to do so doubtingly, put aside the new job, the different apartment, the change in your partner, the place you’d rather be, and fully believe that right now nothing is missing.
A natural joy and happiness arises, without force, as a result of a moment, however fleeting, of contentment. It is a shift in perspective, not a shift in circumstance, that allows for santosa and sukham.
Repetition is necessary, all aspects of yoga are a lifelong practice. Eventually, we develop a deep well of sukham. In the analogy by Matthieu Richard*, we are like the ocean far out to see. On the surface we may have leaping waves dolphins frolic in or turbulent storm tossed ones, but deep down we have a still, steady, always present serenity and joy.
Sometimes we experience this in asana. When we experience the sthira sukham within each pose, instead of purely the external motions of the physical body on the surface, we notice how the body is moving around this steady joyful source. All the asanas begin to feel the same. Our sukham - joy – begins to become steady.
Next month we will focus on sthira.
*Inspired by Matthieu Richard’s November 2007 TED talk.