“How Come I’m Not Comfortable?” The Meaning of Sukha
“Find the steady, easy posture,” the yoga instructor tells students, quoting Patanjali’s famous aphorism from verse II.46 of the Yoga Sutra. Fifteen minutes later, you hear, “Now lean into your edge…welcome to the shake zone.” And then, encouragingly, “This pose isn’t easy.” It certainly doesn’t feel easy. It’s a struggle to hold the pose.
The best translation I have ever heard is “a good fit.” When I keep this definition of sukha in mind, I find that many parts of my practice fit together.
So much for sukha meaning “ease.” Maybe “comfort” is a better definition. But then I hear the instructor assure the roomful of quivering yogis, “Focus through the discomfort.” Knowing that you are not suffering alone can be encouraging. But if sukha is neither “easy” nor “comfortable,” then what is it? Whether we are practicing strenuous postures or quietly meditating, we are out of our comfort zone. To say then that sukha means “comfort” or “ease” can be confusing. The best translation I have ever heard is “a good fit.” When I keep this definition of sukha in mind, I find that many parts of my practice fit together.
Breaking the word down into its parts, su means “good” and kha means “hole”—in this case, the hole where a chariot wheel and axle come together. The ancient Indo-Europeans brought their languages and customs to lands as far apart as India and Ireland. What enabled them to travel such distances was the chariot. If the wheelwright and the chariot-maker did a good job, the ride was sukha, and the good fit allowed the wheels and axles to work together smoothly.
Although beginners may often be more confused than instructors realize, most yogis develop a sense of how to harmonize working hard while maintaining what Patanjali calls sthira sukham—translated as “steady, with a good fit.” Whether or not you are breathing is an oft-recommended way to gauge if your practice is sthira and sukha. I won’t argue with the breath test as the quickest way to determine whether what you are doing is yoga or self-asphyxiation, but a look at the Sanskrit language and India’s history also helps us understand what it means to maintain sthira sukham asanam while we are in “the shake zone,” as my favorite power yoga instructor likes to say.
Sukha in sthira sukham asanam suggests that all parts of our bodies should join together in a good fit as we practice yoga. This remains true whether we are finding stillness in savasana, or shaking and sweating while holding a challenging pose. One of the foundational yogic texts, the Bhagavad Gita, uses as its central metaphor the most demanding of all forms of charioteering—chariot warfare. The Gita is a small but vitally important part of the vast epic, the Mahabharata, occurring as a divine revelation upon a field of battle. You can bet that ancient charioteers in such a battle would shake and sweat as they controlled four speeding horses, while a warrior positioned on the chariot performed the extraordinary task of shooting an arrow at a moving target! Controlling a chariot was seen as the consummate test of physical skill and mental concentration. Sukha does not mean “easy” or even “comfortable,” as we normally understand the terms—it means that everything is working together harmoniously.
I have been told that the greatest masters of archery, charioteering, and hatha yoga achieve a state of effortless mastery. But sthira sukham also applies to those of us for whom practice is still a shaky and sweaty affair. In the simplest terms, it means your wheel isn’t wobbling—i.e., that your body isn’t positioned in a way that will cause injury. But there is a lot more to it than that. Hatha yoga is a practical discipline, and on the most basic level, sukha means that the physical body—called the physical “sheath” (annamaya kosha) in yoga philosophy—is aligned in a way that will bring us safely toward strength, suppleness, and health. But the concept also applies to the body’s subtler sheaths—the sheath of energy (pranamaya kosha), the sheath of mind (manomaya kosha), the sheath of knowledge (vijnanamaya kosha), and the sheath of bliss (anandamaya kosha).
Hatha yoga is a practical discipline, and on the most basic level, sukha means that the physical body is aligned in a way that will bring us safely toward strength, suppleness, and health.
Very early in the yoga tradition, the chariot became a metaphor for the human body—being guided by God, the charioteer, while the soul takes aim at its target. And while it is well and good to celebrate what the body can do, let’s remember that yoga is ultimately about the care of the soul. In the Bhagavad Gita, the dialogue between the soul and God is expressed through the metaphor of the archer Arjuna speaking to his charioteer, Krishna. When everything in our practice fits together—the limbs of our body, as well as the deeper parts of our being—and when we take aim from our chariot with care, but without attachment to the outcome, then we nurture ourselves in the most profound way and are in service of a higher purpose. To quote the final verse of the Gita:
When Krishna is the Master of Yoga
And Arjuna is the mighty archer,
Then there will always be prosperity, victory, opulence, and righteousness—
This is my firm conviction.
We are all Arjuna. The arrows are the intentions we offer in our practice and our lives. It must have been quite a practice in letting go for ancient chariot warriors to put all their years of training into shooting an arrow, and then to simply get on with the task at hand (without attachment to the outcome). But that is what we are told to do when the Gita says not to be attached to the fruit of our actions—whether the action is shooting an arrow, going to a job interview, or trying to nail that handstand.
For Krishna to be the Master of Yoga means for our higher self—our atman, the ground of our being—to guide our intentions and our actions. And for Arjuna to be the archer means for us to act with awareness of our purpose in life, and to choose to do right, without attachment to personal gain.
May our wheels never wobble.
Chris Livanos is a yoga instructor in Madison, WI and a professor in the Center for South Asia and the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin. After years of studying Sanskrit and Indian religions and having a yoga instructor for a mother, Chris finally started doing yoga on an ER doctor’s suggestion after throwing out his back. He fell in love with the practice immediately and has never looked back.
Chris offers teacher training modules on asana instruction as... Read more>>