Sthira sukham asanam. The first sutra in the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. Any pose should be steady and comfortable. This guiding principle should be applied to all poses throughout a class, and as a teacher, I see it as my duty to remind the students to search for this balance, perhaps especially in poses where I see that they are struggling, grinding their teeth, holding their breath, pushing themselves too much. Yoga should never be painful. Yoga is not a competition. The principle of sthira and sukha reminds students to find ease and comfort also in poses that are normally experienced as challenging, such as balances and inversions, or strong, such as chaturanga or vashistasana.
What separates yoga asanas from mere gymnastics, aside from its spiritual heritage and link to the other limbs of yoga, is awareness – awareness of the breath and awareness of the entire body as it moves in and out of each posture. But even though yoga demands awareness, focus and attention throughout a full yoga class, one should still come out of the class feeling restored and relaxed. It is all about pacing oneself, and using one’s energy wisely. To help achieve this, one should apply what B. K. S. Iyengar has called ‘effortless effort’. Even ‘passive activity’ or ‘active passivity’ are terms useful to illustrate the kind of balance the principle of sthira and sukha reminds us should be applied to our entire practice.
Another principle that I often think about in my own practice and refer to in my teaching, which similar to sthira and sukha imply finding the balance between two polarities, is that of action and reaction. For instance, in Tadasana, feet pressing into the ground and crown of head floating up to the sky. The list of other opposites or dichotomies in yoga are endless: sun/moon, masculine/feminine, body/soul, practical/spiritual, group/individual etc. Embracing the fundamental concept of sthira and sukha helps us access and balance all these other opposites.