Sthira Sukham Asanam – II

sthira sukham asanam PYS II.46

The connection to the earth should be steady and joyful  -and-
Asana should be steady and joyful.

In the Patanjali Yoga Sutra tradition, there is but one guideline for asana practice – that it is steady (sthira) and joyful (sukham).

Last month sukham was the focus, this month it will be sthira.


Steady is a term which makes one think of statues, of tall oak trees, of houses with deep cement foundations, of things which are mostly, if not entirely, unmoving. It is this that gives them the strength to be steady.

Swami Satchidinanda says “Anything that makes us stiff can also break us. Only if we are supple will we never break.” The first step in practicing sthira, then, is to come to a new understanding of what steady means.  To find a definition that allows for flexibility, for motion.  Just think – tadasana, mountain pose, is the steadiest of all postures. A quick self-check while standing in that pose will reveal all sorts of movement – breath, blood, small balance adjustments of the feet, light swaying of the torso, micro adjustments to stay aligned, electrical impulses – not all of which can be felt.

Let’s look at an experiment. Matthieu Richard mentions, in his TED Talk, of an experiment performed using bombs. Intentional explosions would go off, and researchers would measure the reaction of participants – which were all varying degrees of flinches and the like.

Long –time meditation practioners were then asked to participate. The bombs went off. They did not flinch. Not even a little. Matthieu explains that it is not because the monks took as their mantra “I will not flinch”, or some other intention to be still.  Instead, they meditated as they always did – with an openness to whatever arises in the moment.

Steadiness, then, resides in that same deep place within us that joy does.  It’s when we tap into that serenity that lies below the surface of the deep ocean of our being, that we connect to both sthira and sukham, steadiness and joy.  Instead of separate experiences, they actually inform and support the other.

During asana and meditation practice, we naturally experience this place. But instead of just allowing it to arise by chance, by the luck of the savasana, this sutra encourages us to intentionally make these connections.  Repeated work here leads to more natural connections, more often.  Eventually, this steady joyful place assumes its rightful place not only in our inner lives, but outer ones as well. It doesn’t mean we have erased hurt, disappointment, anger, or other reactions and experiences of suffering. What we have cultivated is a state of being that makes the hurts last short, hurt less, and feel smaller. They joys, in turn, last longer, are enjoyed more, and feel larger.

Sthira Sukham Asanam – I

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.