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Deva Parnell PortraitThe Sadhana of Teaching
Balancing Polarities of Tension and Relaxation
By Deva Parnell

     "Sthira sukham asanam: the posture is steady and comfortable." Each time we attend a yoga event or read a new book or article on yoga, we're likely to encounter this quote from Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. In fact, we've heard it so often that some of us might find ourselves repeating it almost habitually as we teach. I'm discovering that this terse little reminder has more depth than I initially imagined.

The word, sthira, means more than just firm. It translates as stable, resolute, changeless. Sthira speaks not only of challenge, strength, endurance and fortitude but also vigilance, the ability to be pay attention, to be present. It is the opposite of agitation and refers to both physical and mental stillness: a controlled, fully engaged body and a focused mind.

Sukha translates as pleasurable, joyful, agreeable, easy, comfortable, happy, prosperous, relaxed. It is the opposite of discomfort, suffering or pain (duhkha). Here we bring in the principles non-violence and self acceptance. We nurture ourselves by doing something that feels good.

The actual translation of asana is seat or camp, and can refer to a way of sitting, a hatha yoga posture, a place or a situation. Traditionally, the word is linked to the seated position itself, or to a posture or series of postures that prepare the body for seated meditation. In the more expanded view of yoga, asana occurs not just on the yoga mat or meditation cushion, but is the foundation from which we act in daily life. Interestingly, the root (as) speaks of being present in one's body -- existing, inhabiting and living fully in it.

In practicing asana, we create a ritual of entering and holding the posture without interruption for a period of time, being fully present with all the details, sensations, and experiences that occur in the body/mind. We compliment the qualities of engagement with letting go. We find a balance between tension and relaxation, a balance between effort and ease that feels delicious and challenging at the same time. Sthira and sukha form a state of equilibrium (satva) that is without agitation (rajas) or inertia (tamas). T.K.V. Desikachar says, "It is attention without tension, loosening-up without slackness"

Most students will need to emphasize one or another of these qualities, depending their personality type. Over-achievers need reminders to relax and be enjoy the experience. Those who tend to be lethargic or half-hearted need encouragement to work at their edge. Those who lack focus need reminders to stay present. Students with limitations need support in creating modifications and working at a gentle level that's still challenging.

We all know that unpleasant emotions and painful memories can bubble up and out during yoga practice. This is the feeling of pain being released, and the result of that release is a greater sense of joy, relief or openness. Even so, there must be balance or moderation in intensity of the catharsis. A respect for the emotional limits. A challenge to the psyche within a safe zone of comfort.

More often the kind of pain I see in my classes is reflected in the facial expressions of students who work so hard at performing an asana that they look as if they are inflicting punishment upon themselves. At this observation, I might remind the whole class of the qualities of sthira and sukha, and pose the question, "Are you happy in this posture?" For some students the most challenging asana is the posture of letting go.

Another kind of discomfort is boredom. We've all experienced either the apathy or the agitation of yoga classes that lacked the challenge we felt we needed. How can we as teachers create an environment so engaging that students leave satisfied, fulfilled? How do we respond to boredom when we sense it in some of our students.

As yoga teachers are we ourselves moving through our classes in that state of sthira sukham asanam? Are we fully engaged, fully present, vigilant. Are we relaxed and enjoying the experience? I find that when I am present with my students everything else falls into place, creating a satisfying experience both for them and for myself. When I am trying to accomplish something or show up a particular way I often create discomfort or duhkha. Personally, I tend to be an excessive planner, but if I allow my plans to run my yoga class, I may loose the richness of the moment. When I lead a posture or series of postures that I've led hundreds of times I can go on automatic pilot and give all the proper details, or I can challenge myself by responding to what I see on the mat, living in the experience with my students.

Asana is not just an externally codified position. It is a subjective experience that allows us to explore and discover the nuances of body, mind and spirit, bringing all parts of our self into harmonious balance. Yoga does not impose a form upon us, but allows us to discover our Self through a form. In life, asana firmly settles us because of these two complementary qualities: firmness in directing our actions and softness in expressing them.

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