Sthira-Sukha: The Fundamental Paradox of Practice

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing how to work with the fundamental paradox at the heart of yoga practice  on the physical, energetic, mental and emotional levels.

Sthira Sukham Asanam

Posture should be steady and comfortable.

Yoga Sutra 2.46, Trans. Edwin Bryant, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

This central teaching, that posture should reflect a balance between steadiness and ease, stability and comfort, provides a context for working with the fundamental paradox of yoga in asana practice.  

While in the original context of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali was referring to the meditation posture (asana here means ‘seat’), sthira and sukha have been extrapolated to become a basic pulsation we work with to balance physical expression in asana.

Sthira and Sukha of course also represent all the polarities within us: the sun and moon, yin and yang, active and receptive, contractive and expansive, individual and universal.

Balancing Strength and Flexibility in Asana

When I started asana practice my teacher told me that my poses were like "pouring a glass of water".  As a former dancer, and gymnast, I liked hatha yoga because I was flexible. I could "do" all the postures. Down the road, however, that innate flexibility started showing up as sacro-iliac instability, shoulder imbalances and neck pain.  I can and do manage all of these, but it took me a long time and a lot of contemplation into the nature of "right effort" to get fully behind what a balanced practice actually looked like. In my case, it meant not not going to where I could go in every pose, and doing less of what felt easy and satisfying. I had to practice more of what was uncomfortable, harder and less immediately gratifying in order to build the stability needed to create balance.  Less sukha, more sthira.

Balancing stability and strength with freedom and flexibility optimizes the physical and energetic expression of the asana. In alignment-based practice, we stabilize by contracting muscles and building the strength needed to hold the body in healthy musculo-skeletal alignment in postural practice. This protects joints from moving beyond a healthy range of motion, and tendons and ligaments from over-stretching.

Once we have a secure and supportive engagement of the muscles, we create physical release by stretching, lengthening muscles, and opening space in the joints. In this dance of contraction and expansion, our muscular and energetic action in postural practice re-enacts the universal pulsation that we observe in our breath, our heartbeat, the cycle of the days and nights, indeed everywhere in nature.

Through inquiry, you get to know where you fall on the spectrum of stability and freedom and  what you need to do to create balance. What poses are easy, even comfortable, for you? What do you love, love, love to practice? Why? What actions or poses do you resist, but know are "good" for you? What have you been taught that you've known, instinctively, 'Yes, this is what I need to be doing"?

While stiff yogis have their own challenges in asana practice, flexibility actually can be a greater liability. A stiff person with a stronger, more muscular body creates flexibility over time by simply continuing the practice. A more flexible person, however, has to restrain herself by doing less than the full form she can achieve, in order to build more stability and strength. This can be hard if we are used to the feeling of pushing to our maximum stretch in every pose. We might feel like we aren’t getting anything or going deeper. Even though doing less can be unsatisfying for the ego, it’s beneficial.  “Maximum is not always optimum,” as one of my teachers would say. We’re creating the necessary strength to hold our flexible range of motion with proper stability, resulting in a more balanced posture.

Over time we learn the value of creating strength to balance our flexibility. Going to the edge of our flexibility in asana without creating proper muscular stability to maintain healthy alignment in asana eventually can over-stretch ligaments and tendons, creating instability in our joints and micro-tears or strain at the muscle attachments. Hip, knee, wrist and shoulder instability, pain at the hamstring or rotator cuff attachments  are common areas where the overly flexible yogi may starts to notice imbalances showing up.  

Even though I'm no longer willing to push myself into the extreme ranges of motions that my body can achieve, I feel stronger and more balanced in my body during practice. Like the fundamental paradox of yoga, healthy action in asana practice is all about two. Even for more inflexible body types, it is always preferable to learn the dual action of creating stability before increasing flexibility, resistance before stretch. Sthira, then sukha. Like the caterpillar that presses out into the container of the cocoon to build the necessary strength in her wings to fly, we too need to work against the healthy boundary of muscular engagement. In this way, we create the stability into which we can open into, expand out against safely and securely.

Upcoming Events

FREE WEBINAR! Thursday, April 13, 12-1pm EST
Registration is free and you'll receive a download of my 16-page Guide to Home Practice as a free gift as soon as you sign up.

Are you ready to reinvigorate your yoga this spring and really make a consistent, satisfying practice part of your life?

In the 25 years I've been practicing yoga, I've encountered all kinds of challenges to making practice happen! And, I've found many creative ways to continue and even increase my interest and enthusiasm for yoga in my life. In this webinar I will show you how to breakthrough resistance and challenges to finally love your independent practice because you are doing exactly what you need to be doing to feel great in your body and inspired in your life.

In this free, one-hour webinar I'll share:

  • The top 10 challenges to practice and how to overcome them
  • How to practice in a way that really works for you
  • How to recognize the gifts of your practice in your life right now
  • What to practice whether you have 15, 30, 60 minutes or more
  • Tips that work for getting to the mat and really making practice happen

 And, I'll guide you in creating your own PERSONAL PRACTICE PLAN for the weeks and months to come.  I'm so excited to share with you. Sign up and you'll immediately receive my 16-page Guide To Home Practice as a free gift! It includes sequences and a pose syllabus as well as lots of practical tips to support your curious, mindful and transformational engagement with your yoga practice!

UPCOMING MONTREAL SERIES: Evolving Your Yoga at Happy Tree, Westmount

Thursdays, 7:45-8:45pm, April 14 - May 18, 2017

I'm very excited to be offering this new series! These weekly sessions will include interactive and stimulating discussion, practical exercises and juicy inquiry into your yoga practice. Each week I'll be presenting new and transformative approaches to your practice and offering you simple, practical and effective ways to infinitely expand the benefits of your yoga - whatever style you practice! Topics include:

  • April 13 - Evolving Your Yoga: Principles for deepening, expanding and integrating practice
  • April 20 - Mud to Lotus: Transformative Approaches to Practice
  • April 27 - Finding Balance: Embracing the pairs of opposites
  • May 4 - The 1 before the 0000s: Nurturing the Inner Relationship
  • May 11 - Remembering Wholeness
  • May 18 - Connecting to your Steady Centre

Cost: $108 for the full 6-week series or $22 for individual sessions (plus taxes)

Can’t make it to Montreal?
Evolve Your Yoga is now available online for just $80!


I'm thrilled to announce that I'll be launching a new 6-week course on April 24. Our focus this time will be on Backbends, Hip Openers and Hanumanasana with mini-sequences, inquiry videos and much more! 

Sign up now and use code LOVEMYYOGA to receive $100 off the regular course price!