We often hear that if we practice every day, we get the most benefit from yoga. Yet, what does it mean to practice every day? Does it mean that we push ourselves as HARD as we can for 7 days of the week? To answer these questions, let us return to one of the traditional “guidebooks” of yoga-the Yoga Sutras.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali writes “sthira sukham asanam.” A simple phrase meaning we practice asana (yoga postures) with effort and ease. Sthira is effort, stability and strength; it is what helps us challenge ourselves and stay upright and engaged throughout our practice. Sukham is ease or comfort; it is what helps us find relaxation and calmness in our practice. All sounds great, doesn’t it? But what does this mean for our actual practice?
Let’s look at sthira and sukham in a familiar pose- Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I). To hold Warrior I, we must engage the legs, feet and arms. This effort in the limbs holds the body upright and helps us strengthen the muscles in the legs and arms. Yet, while engaging the limbs, we don’t want the effort to be so excessive that we can only focus on how difficult/painful/uncomfortable the pose feels. This is where sukham is important. While we are holding the pose and strengthening the legs, we also want to be able to connect to calmness and relaxation in the pose. We want to also feel the sensation of the torso “floating” on the legs. Therefore, to find balance between effort and ease in this pose, we may need to disengage the muscles in the legs by 5% or 10% (depending on how much we are holding). The minute disengagement of the muscles may be exactly what we need to find our optimal balance between the strengthening and calming benefits of Warrior I.
Now let’s explore the balance between effort and ease in our whole practice- particularly the tough poses! Have you ever noticed that during a really challenging pose or sequence, you feel tension or holding in certain areas in your breath or body (often the jaw and eyebrows)? One way to assess if we are pushing too hard is to observe the quality of our breath- the moment we lose connection to the breath or the breath is strained- it is time to ease up. As you move through difficult parts of your practice, ask yourself: Is my breath strained? Are my muscles cramping? If the answer is yes, you need to ease up in the pose/sequence.
Balance between effort and ease is also tied into the frequency of practice. It can be healthy to practice yoga seven days a week, but this is only if we have a balance between active and restorative practice. Just like our bodies need movement and effort, they also need rest to rebuild, heal and stretch. Active (Power, Ashtanga, Vinyasa) and restore classes have benefits to the body, and are both equally important for optimal health. So why not delve deeper in your practice by making an ongoing commitment to harnessing both sthira (effort) and sukham (ease)?