Yoga Journal, September 2005
Patanjali's linked concepts of "sthira" and "sukha"--effort and
ease--can help structure your teaching. Learn how situating your instruction
between these two poles can help your students find harmony.
In describing the qualities of asana with the adjectives "sthira" and
"sukha," Patanjali uses language very skillfully. Sthira means steady
and alert--to embody sthira, the pose must be strong and active. Sukha
means comfortable and light--to express sukha, the pose must be joyful
and soft. These complimentary poles--or Yin and Yang co-essentials--teach
us the wisdom of balance. By finding balance, we find inner harmony, both
in our practice and in our lives.
As teachers, we need to help our students find that balance in their
practice. Our instruction should assist them in an exploration of both
sthira and sukha. In practical terms, we should begin by teaching sthira
as a form of connection to the ground, and then move to sukha as a form
of lighthearted exploration and expansion. In this way, we can teach from
the ground up.
Manifesting steadiness (sthira) requires connecting to the ground beneath
us, which is our earth, our support. Whether our base is comprised of
ten toes, one foot, or one or both hands, we must cultivate energy through
that base. Staying attentive to our roots requires a special form of alertness.
Our instruction should begin there by helping students cultivate this
alertness at the base of a pose. I will demonstrate this form of instruction
for Tadasana, the blue print for all the other standing poses. The principles
of Tadasana can be easily adapted to any standing pose you wish to teach.
In all the standing poses, steadiness comes from rooting all sides of
the feet like the stakes of a tent. We need to teach students with high
arches to pay particular attention to grounding their inner feet, and
show students with fallen arches to move their ankles away from each other.
After rooting the feet, we move up, reminding students to draw the kneecaps
up, the upper inner thighs in and back, and the outer sides of the knees
back. This allows students to notice whether their weight feels evenly
distributed between the right and left leg, the front and back of the
foot, and the inner and outer thighs.
Next we should remind our students to adjust the pelvis, allowing the
weight of the hips to be above the knees and ankles. This often requires
them to draw their weight slightly back in order to allow the point of
the coccyx to face down. In this alignment, the tailbone is not tucked
nor lifted, but merely directed down between the fronts of the heels.
Those with flat lumbar spines will need to allow the tailbone to move
slightly back, moving away from tucking, while those with over-arched
backs will need to encourage the tailbone to draw slightly in.
We should then instruct our students to lengthen the side waist, lift
the top of the sternum and relax the shoulders down the back, aligning
them over the hips and ankles. They should bring their heads above their
shoulders, aligning the chin in the same plane as the forehead. Finally,
they should relax the jaw, allowing the tongue to float freely in the
mouth and the eyes to soften.
Once our students have attended to steadiness, the other qualities of
alertness and comfort become accessible. They are now ready to bring their
hands into Namaste position and reflect on their motivation before beginning
Encourage your students to view this grounded base as their home base,
the foundation from which they can create, explore, and at times expand.
From there, they can navigate to a place of ease or sukha. Just as steadiness
requires and develops alertness, comfort entails remaining light, unburdened,
and interested in discovery. By teaching this quality, we encourage a
balanced equilibrium rather than impose rigid rules for alignment. This
helps students develop a natural respect toward their bodies and themselves,
while encouraging them to fully inhabit their bodies. They can then learn
to move away from commanding their bodies to perform poses, and instead
breathe life into them from the inside.
With sthira and sukha as the points on our compass, we can organize
our teaching and help our students enjoy exploring their places of limitation
and liberation in every pose. As a result, regardless of your students'
individual abilities, their practice can focus on celebration and refreshment.
At a deeper level, the way we practice and teach yoga poses mirrors
the way we live the rest of our lives. As we reflect on our practice and
our teaching, we can use yoga as a tool for developing greater insight
into ourselves and the world around us. Sthira and sukha can then become
not only tools for teaching or understanding yoga, but also principals
that help guide the way we live.
Sarah Powers blends the insights of yoga and Buddhism in her practice
and teaching. She lives in Marin, California where she home schools her
daughter and teaches classes.