4.15.2010

Stability and Ease

Earlier this week, the Everything Yoga Blog featured a post entitled "Shaping Up for Bathing Suit Season without Sacrificing Your Yoga Practice." The article suggests that yoga should not be physically challenging, and that the optimal duration for one's daily personal practice is 20-30 minutes. The first bullet point states that "yoga isn't meant to be a workout." It goes on to point out that, per the Yoga Sutras, the elements of sthira (stability) and sukha (ease) should be present in one's asana practice, and suggests that this is not possible when engaged in a rigorous practice. I won't paraphrase any further. You can read the article yourself.

I've been reading the Everything Yoga Blog pretty regularly for about a year, so I'm familiar with the author's views regarding brief, manageable practice sessions, but this particular post raised many questions, and got me thinking about the nature of my practice.

How much yoga, specifically asana practice, is enough? Is it beneficial to try and condense the practice into it's most time-efficient form, doing only what one deems to be “enough?” If this is the attitude that one takes toward their practice, I have to ask, why? My personal practice is at least one hour, typically two hours, not unusually three hours, including 20-30 minutes of seated meditation, six days per week. This practice schedule is not something that I planned for. I did not one day decide a minimum or maximum practice limit for myself; even now, I do not commit myself to any length of time when I step onto the mat. My practice has evolved this way because it brings me joy. There is great joy in living fully in the body, honoring it's power and vulnerability. Sukha, generally interpreted as "ease," can also mean "pleasure," "joy," "comfort," "happiness," and "relaxation" (Parnell, "Balancing Polarities of Tension and Relaxation"). If this element is present in your practice, what is the motivation for doing only as much as is necessary?

Sthira may be translated as "firmness," "resolution" or "changeless," in addition to "stability" (Parnell, "Balancing Polarities of Tension and Relaxation"). The term “resolute” implies effort; it suggests that there are obstacles to be faced. It also implies focus and presence. It is my understanding that the practice of asana is practice for life – and life is hard. Asanas are designed to stimulate sensations in the body so that we may train the mind to be steadfast as we near the edges of our capacity to experience stability and ease. Through the practice of asana, we learn to be in tune with our bodies so that we may safely navigate these edges, and learn compassion in the process. If we do not seek to move past our edges, or, perhaps more aptly, if we does not seek to move our edges, then the practice is not a journey; it's a settlement, a compromise.

I am not saying that a vigorous vinyasa practice is for everyone. I am saying that an element of difficulty is necessary for the practice to be meaningful. For some, this challenge is in stillness and surrender, for others it's in letting go of doubts and being generous with one's body and its abilities. For most of us, I'm sure it's a combination of both, which is why I believe that one's asana practice should balance challenges of both natures in the interest of expanding one's capacity to exist in a state of stability (sthira) and ease (sukha), free from agitation.

But agitation and difficulty are not the same thing. One can perform a task of great physical difficulty with a sense of ease and, for that matter, accomplish a simple task with great difficulty, the point being that sthira and sukha are drawn from the mind to the body, and not the other way around. Through the practice of yoga, we learn to maintain a steady and quiet mind in the face of stimulation, which in an asana practice is experienced as sensations of varying intensity. I agree with the general consensus that pain should not be a part of yoga, but only in so far as the fact that “pain” itself is a judgement of the mind, which is something to be avoided by the yogi. According to the Bhagavad Gita, “this is the real meaning of Yoga – a deliverance from contact with pain and sorrow” through the practice of non-judgement, striving for a steadiness of mind which allows one to regard all aspects of life evenly. I believe this includes discomfort -- physical, mental, and emotional. How can we learn to experience each moment fully if we do not condition the mind, with practice, to be still and receptive at those times when life inevitably pushes us onto the edge?

Please share your thoughts in the comments. I'd love to know what the other yogi/inis have to say about sthira and sukha in their asana practice.

6 comments:

  1. This is a hard topic. My practice - duration, regularity, intensity - varies greatly from week to week, month to month, season to season. These days, I spend a lot of free time outside, but I practice much more yoga in the winter. The amount of time I spend practicing is also all wrapped up in guilt and feelings of obligation, which is something I'm trying to unravel, but it's hard. I always feel pressure to practice more than I do but I also resist practicing out of duty. So, like many things, it's tough to strike a balance.

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  2. Whilst on the whole I am more with Diane's school of thought I do believe we have to listen to our bodies and do what they tell us (as it sounds like you are doing :)).

    For me a 2-3 hour physical practice would be a no go. I would be asking for a fibromyalgia flare up and my back would not thank me either. A 20-40 minute daily practice fits in not just with my lifestyle but with my body and my health. To me it doesn't feel like the bare minimum. That 20 minutes feels to me like I imagine 2 hours feels to you.

    Having said that of course my practice doesn't end off the mat. I try to continue my yoga practice in my everyday life. Asana is after all only one eighth of the story!

    Namaste x

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  3. Jamie - Those feelings of obligation and guilt surrounding your practice, to me, would be indicators that the practice is in need of some modification. Perhaps a more light-hearted home practice, playing rather than straining, would help you overcome your reluctance to hit the mat. Though, I admit that I, too, experience the inexplicable aversion to practice from time to time, even though I know how much lighter I feel, of body and mind, afterward.

    Rachel - I don't mean to say that 1+ hour practice sessions are appropriate, or even desirable for everyone. It's not the brevity of shorter practices that I wonder about. It's the attitude of minimization that I don't understand. But you make a good point that the practice needs to suit the lifestyle, body type, and health of the practitioner in order to be beneficial, and ultimately, the individual must tailor the practice to serve their own needs and goals.

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  4. Hey Misanthropic, what a great, insightful post! I personally vary my practice a lot in intensity and duration depending on how much I am working, the time of the month etc.

    I have always held a similar interpretation of "sthira sukham asanam" - that steadiness, joy and ease come with hard work and dedication. Certainly I can now be steady and joyful in poses that previously were extremely difficult for me!

    But when I face a classroom of stressed out students with their faces tensed, grinding their teeth through a Warrior sequence, it's important to remind people that yoga is not an asana competition, not even with yourself. It's a process, a journey, and it's also about accepting how your body works and accepting where you are in the present.

    That balance of working towards something while accepting where you are is a very personal one. For some, it's a wave of relief to 'accept' a 30 minute practice that will give them health and joy, and not measure themselves up against a strenuous practice that may not be right for them at their time and place in life, or that may cause them injury or emotional distress. Like you, I don't think you need a long practice to get benefits out of yoga. Nor do you need a long practice to challenge yourself mentally, emotionally and physically. I am always telling my students "even just 10 minutes of yoga a day is still yoga!"

    Once during my TT, a fellow trainee asked one of our teachers how many of the Ashtanga series she had practiced. She replied that after 8 years of Ashtanga study, she had only ever practiced the Primary series. We were all stunned and the trainee asked her why she had never gone on. She replied that her primary series practice gave her everything she could possibly need - a challenging practice, a healthy body and a healthy mind. The continuation of her journey was a spiritual one (14 day vipassana retreats, anyone?!), not a physical one.

    I think it's important to challenge and stimulate ourselves. But for some people, the right place for that challenge may not be the yoga mat. The mat may be a place of sanctuary, rest and self-care, as much as it may be a metaphorical battlefield. I think if we are in tune with ourselves we'll find the right balance for each of us.

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  5. I believe the 'right amount' of asana pratice is different for each individual. It may be 5 minutes, it may be 3 hours - but it's up to the practitioner to figure that part out.

    I tell my students that it doesn't matter how *long* their practice is, as long as they unroll their mat and do something! I'm also a huge proponent of consistency and discipline in yoga practice. A daily practice of any length can be life changing.

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  6. Kai and La Gitane - Agreed that regularity takes precedence over duration. Something is of course better than nothing. My own practice started as 30 minutes a day, three or four days a week, and at the time, it was a very deep and permeating experience for me. Even now I'll do twenty or thirty minutes of gentle practice on the living room floor if it looks as though I won't have time to hole up in my yoga space for a while.

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