There’s a fine line between “honoring your body” and being just plain lazy – but on the other hand, working too hard will usually prove counterproductive. I’m not just talking about yoga – like so many aspects of yoga, this applies off the mat too.
To those who aren’t in the know, yoga usually brings to mind gentle stretching, soothing music, and a general air of peacefulness. Those of us who are in the know expect to feel relaxed after class, but also realise it takes a lot of hard work to get there. You won’t glean all the benefits of yoga just by showing up.
How do you work hard in a yoga class while still feeling relaxed?
These two seemingly opposite forces are actually closely intertwined – but to find the link, you have to let go of any attachment to the practice and accept that it may not go as you plan.
Patanjali 2.46: स्थिरसुखमासनम् ॥४६॥
Sthira Sukham Asanam: Strong and relaxed should be the posture.
Sutra 2.46, Sthira Sukham Asanam, is one of the few sutras in which Patanjali actually mentions the physical practice of yoga. It literally means you should be working hard in each posture, but not so hard that it is no longer relaxing. This means working to your full potential and outside of your comfort zone, but not fidgeting.
These two types of yoga students who illustrate sthira and sukham perfectly:
Sthira takes the most advanced form of every posture, often sacrificing proper alignment just to make it into that bind or stand on his head for a nanosecond. He’s constantly fidgeting as he tries to finagle his way into the pose, relying on strength to hold himself there. He has trouble with balancing poses, is less likely to be flexible, probably isn’t breathing evenly yet refuses to use any props, and can’t hold the postures as long as the rest of the class.
Sukham grabs three blankets, a strap, and two bolsters before even unrolling her mat. She always takes the least challenging modification and uses a plethora of props – usually her alignment is okay, but she doesn’t engage with the postures. Sometimes she makes excuses for not exerting effort. She skips vinyasas, takes many breaks in child’s pose, and doesn’t readjust once she settles into a posture.
Just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with a nice restorative practice. There’s also nothing wrong with being a little ambitious. The trick is balancing the two so you have an effective practice – and you can find a balance between strength and relaxation in any type of yoga class. A practice with only sthira will leave you exhausted, frustrated, and tighter than when you started. A practice with only sukham will leave you feeling unfulfilled, scattered, and unfocused. A practice with both sthira and sukham will leave you feeling relaxed yet energised, focused, strong, and flexible – basically, “yoked” with your body.
So, how do you channel both sthira and sukham on and off the mat?
Here’s an example of sthira and sukham in Prasarita Padottanasana (wide legged standing forward bend): Sthira is grabbing her toes forcefully, straining to get her head to the ground. She’s constantly shifting her feet, trying to get them far enough apart that her head touches the ground but often losing control. Sukham barely has his feet a metre apart and is resting his hands on two blocks at the tallest setting, elbows and knees still bent. A student engaging both sthira and sukha would have the feet an appropriate distance apart (underneath where the wrists would be were the arms outstretched) and would have the hands placed on the floor (or blocks) so that the arms are straight or the elbows are bent straight backwards. He would be engaging his quadriceps and tilting his tailbone up to the ceiling in order to feel the backs of the legs stretching, and although he is using the pressure of the floor (or blocks) to lengthen the spine toward the ground, he is not straining for his head to meet it. He is able to stay in this posture for several deep, even breaths and although he feels the stretch in the legs, he feels a release in the low back and neck and is able to relax.
And off the mat? Well, due to our excessive 40-plus hour workweek, that’s a little tougher. Ideally, we would all have jobs we love so that it’s easy to work hard without feeling like we’re working. But since that’s not often the case, the trick is to work efficiently and be sure to spend time decompressing. Again, it’s easy to confuse “decompressing” with “being lazy.” Decompressing does not mean procrastinating or wasting time – it means doing something you know is good for yourself. If that means watching an hour of TV, then watch an hour of TV – don’t binge watch House of Cards for seven hours because that much sukham will leave youunfulfilled, scattered, and unfocused. But at the same time, don’t go crazy ploughing through a work project for ten hours – like a sthira yoga practice, it will leave you exhausted, frustrated, and tense.
The best thing you can do to maintain a sthira – sukham balance in daily life is to put some play in your work and some work in your play. Try to focus on the aspects of your job that you enjoy and develop the skills to shape your career in that direction – and try to find leisurely activities that are still productive and involve developing skills, even if not directly related to your line of work.
Of course some days will be more sthira and some will be more sukham, but as the adage goes – “there’s no such thing as work-life balance; there is only life.”