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.