Sthira and Sukha are two concepts found in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a collection of 196 Sutras (aphorisms) on the theory and practice of yoga.
It mainly refers to the concepts of ease (sukha) and effort (sthira), and how together, they forge the highly sought-after concept of balance.
In this article we will explore:
- Sthira and Sukha in the Yoga Sutras
- The Meaning of Sthira and Sukha
- Sthira and Sukha on and off the mat
- Ways to practice Sthira and Sukha
Sthira and Sukha in the Yoga Sutras
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are an ancient compilation of aphorisms or concise statements about yogic principles. It is formed by 195 (196, depends on who you ask!) of these adages, and only one of them speaks of the concept of Sthira and Sukha as it refers to the asana practice.
Sutra 2.46 – “sthira-sukham asanam”. This sentence can be translated as “postures should be stable and comfortable”, and it is often rendered as the harmony between “effort” and “ease”, commonly known as balance.
The Meaning of Sthira
Sthira refers to stability, intent, and strength. Etymologically it arises from the root stha, which means “to stand, to be firm”.
The Meaning Of Sukha
Sukha refers to comfort, ease, and openness, and the literal meaning is “good space,” from the root words su (good) and kha (space).
Sthira and Sukha on the mat
We can incorporate the yogic principles of effort and ease when practicing asana following the advice of Patanjali.
Sthira is the fire also known as agni, the fire of transformation.
It is the part of the practice that requires you to be completely present when you find yourself experiencing discomfort or even becoming irritated.
You may find that at times, this distress emerges from your physical body, your mind, or the energetic body, and it affects your experience.
Finding stability in the body and the mind while practicing asana, meditation, or any other yogic practice is what can ultimately bring us to balance. “Asana sthiti”, which translates to “steadfastness in the posture”.You’ll know you’re experiencing asana sthiti when the shape feels steady, your muscles are engaged, and your breath is rhythmic and supportive of the moment unfolding before you. Your mind will be present and observant.
Consider the posture of sirsasana (headstand) for example;
To be able to remain in the posture once you’ve aligned and stacked your body in the alignment that supports and feels good to you, there is a moment where you must continue to keep all the muscles and tendons steady, as well as your mind and your breath, in order to remain in the posture and not loose balance and fall out.
Sthira is that part of you that keeps the steady fire burning in the asana, and Sukha is its balancing force that allows you to remain relaxed and present.
Without that balancing force of Sukha, ease, the muscles might become too tense, the breath too shallow, and then your mind may begin to worry, indeed, causing you to fall out of the headstand.
Sukha, or ease, occurs when we learn to let go. It is the part of the practice where, as you become more self-aware, you begin to relax and become present in the experience. You no longer have the need to do more or try harder; the law of minimum effort is manifested.
Sukha is the part of yourself that can innately feel when you’ve “arrived” in the posture; it is not about doing the posture perfectly or doing the most difficult variation any longer.
Everything feels properly aligned and there is no strain on the muscles. Your mind feels calm, spacious, and content, and prana, the life force energy, can flow freely through you.
In your life, you may find you’re constantly searching for harmony between both strength and stability, as well as flexibility and freedom.
Having too much of one and too little of the other creates imbalance.
If your body is strong yet your muscles and other connective tissues are tight or not very flexible, you may be able to do certain poses like Chaturanga Dandasana with a great amount of ease, yet opening up through your front body in Bhujangasana may be very challenging; as may sitting in Sukhasana to meditate with ease.
Freedom and spaciousness can become elusive when we lean too much toward effort, and avoid connecting to ease.
If on the other hand your practice is centered around achieving physical flexibility and freedom, you may really enjoy yoga practices that favor loads of flowing movements and expansiveness over-controlled and sustained shapes and postures.
You may then become very flexible and pliable, yet struggle to hold postures that require strength and stability for a long time. It may cause you to enter certain shapes lacking the muscle awareness and activation necessary to be in them safely, finding yourself very connected to ease, Sukha, and perhaps less to Sthira.
Sthira and Sukha off the mat
As wonderful and beneficial as it is to practice these concepts when we are in a safe, calm and supportive space like our yoga mat or the yoga studio, the magic of yoga truly happens when you are able to take these teachings off the mat, and into your daily life, habits, routines, and interactions.
How do we move in our lives in a stable way, where both work and play are regarded and explored as equal?
We often wonder how to proportionately spend time caring for ourselves, our needs, and our hobbies as well as being there for others and fulfilling our work, or our Dharma in this world.
The answer is simple; in the exact same way as you explore this concept of effort and ease on your yoga mat; with awareness, compassion for yourself and others, and willingness to explore.
Perhaps you’re aware that the mind, if left unattended, may truly enjoy this game of extremes; all in… or all out; one may work 40+ hours in 5 days and fill all the “free” time with workshops, meetings and social activities, and then spend the weekend on the couch, eating pizza and playing videogames.
Either you feel that you are doing great or, if you drop the ball once, now you tell yourself that you “totally suck”.
Your thinking mind is trained to keep you engaged, if you allow it, in very dual, trivial things; overthinking that one embarrassing moment you had last week, reliving it over and over. Or perhaps worrying about tomorrow’s presentation with thoughts of doom, defeat, and worst-case scenarios.
When you notice, pause, take a deep breath, and bring yourself back to the present, where life actually happens.
Ways to practice Sthira and Sukha
As you become more aware of how you show up on your mat and in your life, through yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices as well as day-to-day activities and challenges you may start to understand yourself and your patterns a bit better as well.
As Martha Beck said; “How You Do Anything is How You Do Everything“.
Perhaps your natural tendency in life right now is more toward effort; always going, working harder, making things perfect, busy, active, and stressed.
If that is the case, utilize your yoga and meditation practice to invite more ease; leaning more toward grounding, relaxing practices like Restorative or Yin Yoga, meditation, and pranayama exercises to support and increase Sukha, ease.
Maybe you start to notice that you’re in a phase in your life where you’ve been leaning more toward the realm of ease, Sukha; you are adaptable and go with the flow, always ready for whatever is coming, yet you also may find it hard to get tasks done and finish what you’ve started, or you may even find that you’re forgetful, or a bit inattentive.
To bring yourself back to balance through your meditation and yoga practices, consider more heat-building and strengthening practices like Vinyasa Flow, Power Yoga, or even Ashtanga, a regimented practice that will surely bring more strength and more structure into your life.
Doing the opposite of what is natural to you is bound to bring a certain amount of resistance, discomfort, and even anger.
Exploring each posture and finding where the balance between too much and too little lies, is a practice in itself. Breathing and being present through it all. Learning to be in spaces with grace and compassion.
As you learn to listen to yourself on your mat, you will learn to listen to yourself off the mat.
You’ll learn that there are times in your life when you’ll have no choice but to put in effort, hard work, and push forward and at other times life will force you to pause, rest, and let go.
Sthira and Sukha can be a reminder of the ebb and flow of life and invite us to see every situation as an opportunity to enhance your experience of life, making space for more understanding of who you are.
Learn more about yoga styles to support your life here.