Asana 1: Sthira Sukham

I was inspired to re-delve into the eight limbs from reading a passage of Dogen’s in the collection “Moon in a Dewdrop”.  It’s only fitting that in coming to the most popular of the eight limbs – asana – we investigate through Dogen’s lens with an excerpt from the Genjo Koan – Acutalizing the Fundamental Point. (Click here and here to read more about Sthira Sukham Asanam)


“A fish swims in the ocean and no matter how far it swims,
there is no end to the water.
A bird flies in the sky and no matter how far it flies,
there is no end to the air.
However, the bird and the fish have never left their elements”

fish sky The question arises; Have You? Have you ever left your element?

Which is not to ask; Have you explored outside your comfort zone? But rather; Have you gone past your beneficial boundaries? Have you overextended yourself? Have you spent an inordinate amount of time being your social self, without sinking into your original self?

Yes. We do it all the time. Usually, we are aware only after we’ve returned, when we say things such as, “I feel like myself again.”

So the next question arises; Do you know what nurtures you? What reinforces you being in your element?

When I personally think about things that do – for example, studying with my teachers, it’s not remembering the details.  It’s not, per se, their teachings, advice or philosophy.  It’s remembering how it feels to be around them, who I am when I’ve been around them, and how that extends out afterwards. It’s a place that holds space for me to both work on myself, and be myself.

Can we allow sthira sukham to be recast from a command to be steady and joyful, to a reminder of who you are when you are steady and joyful, when you’re in your element?

Dogen continues:

 “When their activity is large, their field is large, when their need or activity is small, their field is small”

fieldWhat is your field? Sometimes it’s the universe of the breath, sometimes the yoga mat, sometimes the neighborhood, sometimes it’s the whole world.  At those times, it’s not your office, nor your home. When it is your office or your home, it is not the yoga room.

Sometimes life is huge, and you are called upon to fill it all, and yoga asks you to  do so staying in your element.  You are party planner, host, mother of two small children, best friend of a friend in need, and wife all at the same evening event. You are a manager of employees, yourself an employee, responsible for the success of a project that is dictated by another, and need to figure out the IT situation preventing the work from being done, all in the same half hour.

How do we fill large fields, or let go into small fields, with sthira and sukham? First – find your element. From there –  realize that you act within your field for the sake of that action, with success or failure not mattering either way.  The Bhagavad Gita shares this wisdom.  But it’s only philosophy until you do it. Until you stand in honest presence before your field, grounded with both feet in your element, and decide the field and the whole way out to the horizon do not depend on what you get, or don’t get.

Try it on the practice field of asana. Internally stand before the pose (field), find your sthira sukham beginning with an exhale (element), and imagine doing the asana perfectly, but invisible.  No one will know, you will have no feedback or barometer for how it went. All you will be left with was how you existed in your element, in that field, in that moment.



“Thus the bird and the fish totally covers their full range and totally experiences their life”

Michael Stone says nothing obstructs steadiness and joy (enlightenment) more than believing it is outside of you and your life.

Rumi (2061) says

Give yourself a kiss.
If you live in China, don’t look
somewhere else, in Tibet, or Mongolia.

If you want to hold the beautiful one,
hold yourself to yourself.

When you kiss the Beloved,
touch your own lips with your own fingers.

The beauty of every woman and every man
is your own beauty.

The confusion of your hair
obscures that sometimes.

An artist comes to paint you
and stands with his mouth open.

Your love reveals your beauty,
but all covering would disappear
if only for a moment your holding-back
would sit before your generosity
and ask,
“Sir, who are you?”

At that,
Shams’ life-changing face
gives you a wink.


“People are drawn to yoga, they come to the studio, they practice because they are suffering, because they have recognized some form of this in their lives.”

Perhaps you have come across a similar quote, generally in the opening to a yoga text of some kind.  It has been the only consistent thing I have come upon in yoga that creates a feeling of alienation. It was simply not true for me. To this day I can’t exactly say why I started doing yoga, but it definitely was not for having recognized suffering in my life. To the contrary, I began it during some of the least suffering moments I’ve had in my adult life. However, I have heard countless stories of people for whom this quote speaks the exact truth. So for some, yoga calls as an answer to suffering, for others, it is a path to reveal the nature of suffering that exists in our life. In the end, or rather I imagine, what is only the beginning, we have this concept of suffering, of dukha.

To say that dukha is the underlying nature of our life, is not to say we exist in perpetual gloom. We all smile, laugh, experience elation, and other aspects of sukha, the flip side of the coin. The key is in recognizing we are on a cycle that vacillates continually between sukha and dukha, within an asana class, within a day, week, year, and sometimes, within only a few minutes. We feel varying degrees of control over which part of the cycle we’re on. Yoga, and Buddhism too for that matter, offer paths to gaining first awareness of this cycle, and then ways to approach sukha and dukha in order to experience life more intentionally and fully.

I find that sukha (good, happy, sweet, joy, etc.) usually gets the attention of the pair, and wanted to spend some time with dukha this month.

I would like to consider two definitions (outside of the traditional “suffering”) for dukha, and in doing so, find some constructive, concrete ways of directly addressing something we have all, as yogis, by some means, recognized to be part of our reality.*

The missing piece

This is a concept introduced to me both by Sharon and David at Jivamukti Training, but also in podcasts by Michael StoneDukha can also be translated as “lack”. This is manifested in our impetus towards achieving things, buying things, changing things, or otherwise altering our current state, which is lacking, in order to achieve happiness. All we need is that better paying job, that home with another room, a partner with a different quirk, a friend that’s around more, another hobby, those new yoga pants, etc. Any time we reach out beyond our current situation as the place where sukha is located, we are setting ourselves in the direct path of dukha.

The mis-aligned wheel

I was first presented with this definition in a writing by Frank Boccio in Michael Stone’s Freeing the Body, Freeing the MindDukha, before being appropriated by Buddhism and Yoga, was first used to describe the state of a mis-aligned wheel axle on an oxcart.  Frank asks us to imagine how a ride in such a cart would be uncomfortable and jarring. Much akin to the ride we are taking through life – although the sweet moments are there, there is under each of those moments, dukha, waiting for the next bump in the road. This manifests every time we move out of the present moment, refusing to see the bumps or the misaligned wheel. Instead we turn to the past, and berate ourselves for not seeing the bump, berate the person(s) we feel caused the bump to exist, or towards the future where we plot ways the avoid all future bumps, or steer clear of situations or people that would cause them, all in the name of ensuring sukha.  Either way puts us once again in the path of dukha, because all of those things are impossible.

The work

First, notice these cycles and thought patterns (citta vritti) that you run in. Be aware of the feelings of lack, and the movements into the past and future. This is always the starting point for work on the yogic path. Awareness. It is the greatest tool to bringing about any evolution of consciousness.

Second, start to re-align with the truth of the present moment. There is a teaching that says it best:

Don’t go forward, don’t go back, don’t stand still

Don’t go into the future, nor the past, nor hide out in the present until everything passes. Nor move forward towards sukha/dukha, nor away from sukha/dukha, nor revel in sukha/dukha. Find the fourth option.

Third, which also can be a result of the work of the first two stages, realize that nothing is missing. Give yourself a few moments of really feeling that nothing is missing. That you, and everything in your life, is complete and full just as it is now. Repeat, and gradually the truth of it arises.

The Tao


Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
Your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
You will always keep your balance.

What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
That arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
What do we have to fear?

See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
Then you can care for all things.


If you don’t realize the source,
You stumble in confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
You naturally become tolerant,
Disinterested, amused,
Kindhearted as a grandmother,
Dignified as a king.
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
You can deal with whatever life brings you,
And when death comes, you are ready.


Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.

The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.

The Master sees things as they are,
Without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
And resides at the center of the circle.
~Translations by Stephen Mitchell

Above all this is work to be fully present and deeply in life. It is not an escape, nor encouragement towards an unfeeling existence.  It is a path towards a life of feeling fully awake, immersed, and aware of life.

*It is also quite possible that you have not quite reached that juncture, and the idea of suffering as the underlying quality of life is off-putting, to say the least. And that is a place I can certainly recognize, having been there myself.

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.