In yogic philosophy there is a concept called sthira sukha—balance between effort and ease that we strive for in our asana practice. It’s also one of the great lessons to take off the mat with you and carry it into our everyday lives.
What is Sthira Sukha?
Steady and peaceful
“Sthira sukham asanam,” from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (a collection of 196 Sutras (aphorisms) on the theory and practice of yoga), teaches us that every asana (pose) should be steady and comfortable—sthira and sukha. “Sthira” means steady, stable, grounded, and strong, while “sukha” means comfortable, easy (or easeful), and peaceful. The paradox is that this is not easy. This is where the true discipline in practice, on and off the mat, kicks in and we must discover how we can make the effort to learn, grow, and evolve while maintaining a sense of ease and remaining effortless.
Why we feel dukha (suffering)
When life is moving along swimmingly, being steady and comfortable (sukha) seems attainable, maybe even easy. But when our jobs, relationships, finances, or at times, all the above go downhill, it rather feels the opposite, or like a disaster or dukha—a Pali term that the Buddha used. It roughly corresponds to the English words for real bad stuff including but not limited to: suffering, pain, discontent, sorrow, affliction, social alienation, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort and frustration. Sthira Sukha is the concept that helped me through the past few challenging months when everything turned out to be the opposite of what I planned, leaving me feeling very dukha. But without that we would be incapable of appreciating its opposite, I would never have learned so many valuable life lessons if it did not happen. I am better and wiser for it.
Sthira Sukha is a great reminder to be present with my resistance toward dukha moments of life. The only thing we have is this very moment and whatever goes on in your life. You have to stop and take a deep breath or even place your hands over your heart and ask yourself: What do I need in this moment? Do I actually need anything? Is there any problems in this moment, right here and now? Just allow yourself to be still without the resistance in that moment, releasing all self-judgment and expectations.
Practicing sthira sukha off the mat reminds us that there aren’t that as many problems in my life as it seems. I have my basic needs met, roof over my head, food in my belly (or on the table), fresh water in my bottle. I am loved, I have everything I need and even more, and don’t even have to care about the things that worry me because they have nothing to do with the now. I will deal with them when the time comes, why ruin this beautiful present with something that shouldn’t be here?
Why we feel bad even when our basic needs are met
Think of the Maslow pyramid. Abraham Maslow proposed his idea of the hierarchy of needs, based on that until our basic survival needs are met, the ancient part of our brains will not be able to enter the headspace required for the next-level needs. When all of our lower-order needs are met, feelings of frustration or stagnation can creep in. This can also manifest as anger, irritation, resentment, anxiety, or depression. We don’t know why we feel the way we feel, especially given that all of our basic needs are met and we have so much to be grateful for. What a paradox, isn’t it?
That’s when mindfulness and practicing effortless effort, sukha comes in. Friends, it is a choice. And granted, a hard one when we are in the thick of the sh*t, but a choice nevertheless.When we are 100% content and satisfied with our path and our choices lead to growth, that is fantastic. But how many of us can be 100% content all the time? Not many of us can visualize ourselves being exactly where we are now years ahead in the future and be happy for it. But that is how we actually grow and how we create our reality. We cannot change the nightmare of the past. But we can change our response and outlook around it.
“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous.” —Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
I don’t know about you, but being fluid sounds a lot better than struggle. The key here is that we get to decide what kind of effort we put out there on and off the mat. And yes, effort is required for transformation or growth of any kind.
Remember these next time life is kicking us in the head or we’re on our yoga mat practicing what seems like an impossible pose.
Simple techniques to bring in more sukha
Notice your breath
The most important part is to catch ourselves in our habitual responses to challenges and uncomfortable situations. When facing hard or stressful moments I noticed I tend to take fewer and more shallow breaths, only breathing into the upper parts of my lungs. What helps is inhaling for 4–5 counts and exhaling equally for 4–5 counts. Maintain this for at least 10 full cycles and continue this with steady, even breathing. This will help ease the heart and slow down the mind’s need to fight or take flight.
Check your shoulders and your jaw
Do you tend to hold your jaw tight? Grind your teeth? Are your shoulders up to the ears? Clenching or being rigid in these areas, among others, are signs of more strain. Can we catch the moment we start to create strain instead of space? Try softening places, like between the eyes, for immediate relief. Soften direct points in the body that feel tense.
Remember that challenges are necessary for growth.
If everything were easy, would we gain any wisdom? How would we measure happiness and what would our ability be to evolve? If you really think back on a difficult part of your life, most likely learned something from it, right? Sometimes what we think is a storm is trying to be a blessing. Let the effort be without internal struggle and know that everything will shift with time.
Some questions to journal about to bring in more sukhka into your life:
- Where and when do you cling?
- How and why do you suffer? How do you end suffering?
- Where do you encounter sweetness? It can be any thing from a hug from your mother to an unexpected home cooked meal after a long day of work, sunset on the beach…
- How could you bring more sweetness into your life, especially when you cling and suffer? What could you replace with more ease and less effort?
Remember: the grass is never greener on the other side, it just appears to be because it’s distant.
Presence in the moment—whether it’s a dukkha moment or a sukha moment—is the greatest gift of all.
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Photo: Jade Stephens via Unsplash