Sthira and Sukha: Steadiness and Ease
Rhythm is essential to life, moment by moment. The earth circles the sun in a stately rhythm. The tides rise and fall, and the cells of all living beings resonate with the tempo set by nature. The lungs and the heart work rhythmically, the intestines produce peristaltic waves, and the brain generates brain waves, all of which are intricately interrelated with one another and with the external environment. Rtam, the rhythm of the universe, appears in our little world as rtu, or season, a “time to every purpose under heaven.”
Like all organisms, humans require rhythm to function well, but most of us ignore the natural internal and external rhythms of our prana, rhythms central to our well-being. Prana is the life force, equivalent to the chi of Oriental medicine. It strings body, mind, and spirit together on a single strand of breath, like pearls on a thread, and causes them to act together as a single organism. But instead of attending to the rhythm of our prana, we try to create our own unnatural tempo. The Aghori Vimalananda used to say, “Westerners wear their gods on their wrists.” By this he meant that we allow an artificial, arrhythmic version of time to regulate our lives. We overschedule ourselves and rush around, letting workaday tasks crowd out the evening and spill over into the weekend. Our dedication to arbitrary schedules disrupts prana’s natural rhythm, weakens our life force, and undermines our ability to adapt to inevitable stresses that come our way.
One of the gifts of yoga and its sister science, ayurveda, is their ability to engender in us a growing sensitivity to our own prana so that we learn to move through our lives with steadiness (sthira) and ease (sukha).
One of the gifts of yoga and its sister science, ayurveda, is their ability to engender in us a growing sensitivity to our own prana so that we learn to move through our lives with steadiness (sthira) and ease (sukha). These two Sanskrit terms are familiar to most yoga students from an oft-quoted aphorism in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: sthira-sukham asanam. This is sutra 2.46, and is most commonly translated, “posture (asana) [should be] stable (sthira) and comfortable (sukha),” but is more literally translated as “resolutely abide in a good space.” Becoming established in “good space,” however, is only possible when our prana is healthy. And cultivating healthy prana is a process that extends beyond the edge of our yoga mat into every aspect of our daily lives. When we start infusing our lifestyle, diet, and relationships with sthira and sukha, we pave the way for a life of balance and spiritual insight.
Let’s begin by taking a closer look at the sutra. The first yoga term, sthira, can mean “firm, compact, strong, steadfast, static, resolute, and courageous”; etymologically it arises from the root stha, which means “to stand, to be firm, to take a stand.”
The yoga term sukha means “happy, good, joyful, delightful, easy, agreeable, gentle, mild, and virtuous.” The literal meaning is “good space,” from the root words su (good) and kha (space). The term originally described the kind of smooth ride one would experience in a cart or a chariot whose axle holes were well centered in the wheels. This image implies that the production of sukha is a dynamic process.
The last word, asana, stems from the root as, which suggests “the act of sitting down, abiding, dwelling, inhabiting, being present.” The emphasis here is being grounded in and committed to whatever you are doing when you are doing it.
Because Patanjali’s primary interest was in developing meditative absorption (samadhi), this sutra originally referred to the quality of a practitioner’s meditation pose, or seated posture. However, many modern yoga teachers now apply it to all the postures. While it is true that achieving steadiness and ease in a posture is the basis of a sound approach to asana practice, this sutra is also the source of valuable guidance for living in rhythm with our prana. Cultivating sthira and sukha as we move through the days and seasons of our lives establishes a foundation for fully realizing our spiritual aspirations, for accomplishing our worldly goals, and for weathering the inevitable changes and difficulties that come our way.
On the Mat
Because the physical postures are the best-known aspect of yoga, let’s first consider what it feels like to cultivate these two qualities—sthira and sukha—in our asana practice.
Sthira is the ability to “hold steady” in an asana, to hold body, energy, and mind in balance for an extended period. This capacity is known as asana sthiti, which can be translated as either “dwelling in an asana” or “steadfastness in an asana.” True asana sthiti arises when the muscles are evenly engaged and free of tension and strain; when the cadence of the breath becomes rhythmic; and when the mind becomes patient and vigilant, observing whatever arises from moment to moment.
Sukha, or “good space,” in asana practice is the comfort that arises when the joints and bones are harmoniously aligned with gravity and when the muscles are free of strain. At the energetic level, sukha manifests as an easy flow of breath and balanced circulation of prana (life force). Mentally, this “good space” manifests as a meditative quality of joy, satisfaction, and spacious awareness.
Resolutely abiding in “good space” is the foundation for a fruitful meditation practice as well as the key to a rewarding and spiritually fulfilling life.
The key image to hold in mind is one of “positive inertia,” where sthira and sukha work together to engender an enduring state of equipoise in all levels of being. Think of your asana practice as a kind of cradle in which you devote your full energy and attention to nourishing a graceful quality within your innermost self. Carrying that quality with you through the rest of your day, in the midst of whatever comes your way, is the key to bringing yoga off the mat and into every area of your life. Resolutely abiding in “good space” is the foundation for a fruitful meditation practice as well as the key to a rewarding and spiritually fulfilling life. The cornerstones are laid by how you shape your days, how and what you eat, and the quality of your relationships.
Boost Your Vitality
Prana is the energy that drives life, the power that animates the body, enlivens the mind, illumines the soul. Prana is life’s inspiration and foundation. It is the sure hand of the tiller, the wise voice of good counsel, the urge to health and harmony that provides shelter from the storms of the hectic modern world. Because the force of prana pulses beneath all our experiences, we are wise to dance to the tempo of her ever-changing tune. Creating a graceful rhythm in our lives through the skillful use of routine is the surest means of reinforcing the equipoise found in our yoga practice and establishing ourselves in sthira and sukha.
Sthira flows from establishing yourself in a routine that introduces a cadence and continuity to your days. A healthy daily routine, even a minimalist one, will do much to encourage stability in the flow of your prana. Getting up before dawn, spacing your meals properly, and going to bed on time all contribute to a quality of even steadiness.
In its external form, routine involves getting up at the same time every day, going to sleep at the same time, and eating at the same time. But what it does not mean is doing exactly the same thing every day.
But even though routine is central to a life that is sthira and sukha, take care to keep your routine malleable lest it become yet another arbitrary demand. In its external form, routine involves getting up at the same time every day, going to sleep at the same time, and eating at the same time. But what it does not mean is doing exactly the same thing every day. For example, getting up before dawn is a good way to enter the diurnal cycle awake and alert, but you also need to pay close attention to exactly what is going on with you on any given morning. That will be the essence, the key you use to determine the pace of your life that day.
If you wake up feeling like a million dollars, you may decide that this is a good day to extend yourself further than your normal limit and accomplish a bit more than you otherwise might. But if you ate a five-cheese pizza and downed a couple of beers late the night before, you will not wake up feeling on top of your game. And when you don’t, acknowledge that today you are not going to accomplish everything you had planned. If you recognize at the outset that you will have to move at a slower pace, and if you are alert to what your body requires while it is rebalancing and detoxifying, you will be able to restore your energy to a relatively normal level by the following day.
The key is to pay attention and respond to how you feel moment to moment rather than imposing a structure from the outside. If you are paying attention, you will have a feel for the pace at which you will be able to live your life on any given day. And pace is crucial. If you are running a marathon and you spurt and sprint the first 100 meters, it will be almost impossible for you to finish the race. Many people don’t seem to understand this; they believe they can extend themselves in all directions indefinitely. But overburden the body and mind consistently and you will end up dwelling with sukha’s evil twin dukha, or “bad space.” You will become increasingly exhaustive, reactive, and impatient. Eventually you will fall ill.
Our fast-paced lives and the prevalence of stress-related illnesses, such as insomnia, anxiety, and heart disease, make it clear that creating “good space” in our schedules for rest and relaxation can literally be lifesaving. You can work long hours and juggle competing demands without depleting and destabilizing your vital energy if you take care to incorporate periods of rest and relaxation into your day. Step away from your desk and take a quick walk around the block. Do a systematic relaxation exercise from time to time. When the pressure begins to mount, relax your abdomen and take a series of deep, smooth breaths. Spend time in nature whenever possible. Attuning your body, breath, and mind to the unforced rhythms of the natural world is a powerful means of establishing yourself in “good space.”
Nourishing Body and Mind
Ayurveda considers eating to be our most important activity because properly digested food nourishes our tissues, which in turn nourish our mind and emotions. Signs of sthira and sukha in our eating habits include physical comfort, sustained energy, emotional stability, and mental focus. Building sthira through diet chiefly boils down to eating regularly, for both body and prana love to be fed similar amounts at similar times every day.
Spacing meals properly is another key to pleasant, sustainable energy. Contrary to some contemporary theories that “grazing” all day long is the best way to arrive at your ideal weight, ayurveda recommends daily periods of fasting. Most people need to allow three hours between meals to give the body time to fully digest and assimilate the nutrients and to process and eliminate waste products and toxins. It is often helpful to drink warm herbal teas or warm water between meals to support the body through this process of digestion and detoxification. Those who work during the day should eat their biggest meals at breakfast and lunch; this is especially true for women, whose hormonal production and balance profits best from a substantial breakfast and lunch with ample proteins and healthy fats.
Keep your diet simple and follow a few basic principles. Limit your intake of sugar and salt—most people consume these substances in excess. Pay attention while you are eating. Don’t eat when you are talking, driving, working, or watching television. Chew your food thoroughly. These are all simple observances, so simple that people tend to ignore them in favor of complicated dietary practices. But these simple observances are the mortar in a stable foundation. If your foundation is not stable, you can consume all kinds of fancy supplements and do all kinds of complex yogas, but sustainable stability will elude you.
Last, but not least, eat food as directly from the farm as possible. When we speak of eating to live we mean that we are sustained by the prana contained within the food, not by the physical form of the food itself. The quality of the prana we assimilate, and therefore the relative chaos or harmony of the body and mind, is determined by the quality of the food we eat. While junk food is the ultimate in chaotic prana, simple, pure, natural food provides the balanced, beneficial prana that keeps body and mind stable and well nourished.
Besides offering superior freshness and taste, eating food produced by farmers who promote sustainable, humane, and respectful practices is a means of building sukha in the wider community while enriching our diet with the positive energy that conscientiously produced food contains. Conversely, when we consume foods that are grown, prepared, or manufactured with insensitivity, violence, greed, or anger, we imbibe that negativity. Negativity in food disturbs the mind. Never cook when you are angry, depressed, or frightened, for you will transfer that negative energy into the food you are preparing. The food that feeds us at the deepest level is food that is prepared with love. That is why nothing compares to home cooking. Digestion goes much deeper than just what we eat; it extends to all aspects of our familial and social lives.
The Yoga of Relationships
Life demands of us a perpetual relationship with the world. Our very existence depends on the regular intake of food, water, light, sound, love, and other “nutrients” that flow into us from sources outside ourselves. Each of us in turn influences our environment as we communicate, move, excrete, create, and perform all the activities of which our lives are made. Disturb the balance of these exchanges and we disturb the foundations of our being.
Because life is relationship, how well or poorly we relate to our environment and to the people around us determines how stable and pleasant our lives will be, how happy or unhappy. Healthy interpersonal associations are central to healthy lives. Studies from around the world suggest that single people are at a greater risk for a wide variety of diseases; married couples and their children even suffer less from tooth decay and have better gums than do members of divorced and bereaved families. Further, recent studies of what creates happiness make it clear that wealth, youth, and education have much less to do with happiness than do strong ties to family and friends.
“Yoga is meant to make every home a happy home,” he told us.
The Aghori Vimalananda offered sound advice for creating sthira and sukha in our relationships. “Yoga is meant to make every home a happy home,” he told us. “When every family member is giving out his or her best to unite the family and make it a success, that is real yoga. And I don’t mean the family you were born into or married into necessarily. Whoever you live with is your family. As we say in Sanskrit, ‘vasudeva kutumbam—we are all members of God’s family.’” Our family is our earth; it is our foundation, our support, the ground we walk on, live on, rely on.
We all know from personal experience that achieving happiness and harmony in our relationships can be challenging. It is often our primary relationships that challenge us the most, but in so doing they provide us with the opportunity to cultivate a quality of wise stability and spacious acceptance, free of self-centered expectations about how things should be.
Relationships invariably require patience. In the words of an Indian folk saying, “Patience is the mother of all knowledge.” Patience entails endurance, staying power, persistence, fortitude, serenity. You will have these qualities only if some part of you is stable; as you are able to create patience in yourself, you will build stability. The two stimulate one another because patience is one aspect of stability. Thus, as you develop sthira in your yoga practice, in your lifestyle, and in your diet, it will be much easier to be patient with your family, friends, and colleagues. Similarly, promoting sukha in relationships is an ongoing process, achieved little by little in acts of kindness, gratitude, forgiveness, imagination, humor, and joy.
None of these suggestions is meant to be added to a list of shoulds and shouldn’ts, dos and don’ts; this is not one further simplified recipe for good living. Yoga and ayurveda are tools for life, alchemical traditions dedicated to transforming the base metals of our chaotic lives into the gold of health, happiness, and wisdom. These and other practices are simply guidelines for creating a conducive environment, both internally and externally, for burning away the clouds of confusion that obstruct the direct perception of the essence of our deepest nature. Each time we step onto our mats or sit in meditation we are cultivating sthira and sukha. By bringing these qualities to bear in our lifestyle, diet, and relationships, we can move through the tempo of our lives with steadiness and ease, and our ability to steadfastly abide in the experience of yoga matures within us.
Dr. Robert Svoboda teaches in the United States, but spends much of his time in India and elsewhere. His schedule is available at drsvoboda.com.
Scott Blossom, LAc, lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, Chandra, and daughter, Tara. See Shunyatayoga.com for his teaching schedule.
About the teacher
During and after his formal ayurvedic training in India, Robert E. Svoboda’s mentor, the Aghori Vimalananda,... Read more
About the teacher
Scott is a Traditional Chinese Medical practitioner, Shadow Yoga teacher, and Ayurvedic Consultant. He... Read more