‘Don’t do anything you don’t want to do. If you have to do something you don’t want to, be easy about it,’ wrote Tara Stiles recently. This is part of her Strala yoga philosophy and the idea stuck with me for several days.
‘Sthira Sukham Asanam’ is a principle found in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2.46-2.48. It can be translated from the Sanskrit as,
‘The seat should be steady and comfortable’.
The ‘seat’ here is the ‘asana’, the physical postures in a yoga practice. This is also significant because the physical practice of yoga prepares us to take our seat for meditation.
But the next line illuminates,
“The postures are mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the infinite.”
Leave tension behind
It can be easy to deride this; the point is that yoga is ultimately about relaxation? Quelle surprise… Even my students describe their favourite part of class as, ‘…the sleepy bit at the end.’
Looking beyond the superficial, there is something else going on here. One of my teachers, Simon Borg-Olivier, interprets Sthira Sukham Asanam as firm but calm, active without tension. He argues that, even in the practice of yoga, we bring our achievement-oriented western cultural bias and practice tension, not relaxation. His teacher Master Zhenhua Yang a martial arts and Qi Gong master would agree,
“All these people doing yoga, they have barbeque skin and no energy.”
We stretch rather than release; stiffen instead of allowing ourselves to flow. We hold our bellies in to adhere to social norms, even if it contributes to digestive or reproductive issues. We wedge our modern bodies with determination into poses they are not prepared for in the hope that this will one day deliver results. We apply force.
A short stint at many yoga studios can confirm this: Students can bring a workout attitude into practice; skip variations; shorten savasana; or lament that a class was too gentle, too easy.
But this is precisely the work. Borg-Olivier says that yoga is about doing difficult poses in a relaxed way. Stiles might agree. Yogic philosopher Georg Feuerstein furthers this arguing that, the Technology of Yoga, uses ‘spiritual alchemy’ of the human body-mind to transcend the ego and connect to a larger, more vibrant whole.
And I guess you can’t open this door if you’re fiercely holding on trying to conquer a press up handstand.
Intellectually it isn’t difficult to accept that we need to cultivate lightness and effortlessness in everything we do, especially yoga and meditation, but the talk can be a lot harder to walk.
I observe myself resisting relaxation on almost ideological grounds. A relaxed demeanour has always been too close to laziness or apathy, in my cultural upbringing. Not only do I need to show up and work hard to have a chance but I jolly well had better continue the effort or all will be lost. Oh the shame!
Going limp is even more poorly regarded. To fall passive, applying little effort and taking no responsibility means that you are buffeted by the world, suffering countless injustices and blaming others for your situation. The ego is still running the show here. It’s just manipulating with a different strategy.
I tend towards the former end of the scale and with this resistance, I’ve noticed myself skilfully making anything a chore, even things I love like teaching or practicing yoga. I create so much resistance to upcoming events sometimes, I struggle to sleep. I often feel physical discomfort at the insistence of a ringing phone.
This stiffness, this hardening, this tension works like a boundary we create around the body. In creating such a boundary, we want to limit our discomfort and steel ourselves against disappointment. However, we also limit flows of energy and information that allow us to grow.
So I’m learning. I’m learning to say no to things I don’t want to do. I’m learning to do the things I have to do with ease. I’m learning to stop wasting immense amounts of energy working up a backstory of resistance.
I’m learning to soften.
I’m learning to be easy.