Stability & Freedom
Putting Patanjali’s famous “Sthira Sukham Asanam” mantra into practice
If my life were a game of Jenga, from an outsider’s view, it might appear ready to topple over at the slightest breeze. But, as yoga has taught me, a carefully placed structure can support even the most dramatic of movements.
In alignment-based yoga, we look closely at the interplay between Sthira (stability) and Sukham (ease), cultivating a harmonious concert between muscular tone and organic expansion.
This month’s blog hits close to home, as I have found myself balancing on the tightrope of stability and freedom over and over again in my adult life – on the mat dealing with injuries caused by too much flexibility without enough muscle tone for support, and in life as I teeter-totter between security and freedom.
How do we pay the bills and afford a comfortable lifestyle without drowning in work? How do we find freedom within our long-term relationships so that we don’t get bored? How can we afford to travel and be free ‘n easy when vacations require us to work long hours to save up money? These are the questions that I have been asking myself over the last 10 years, as I slowly carve out a delicate path between security and spaciousness.
In my early 20s, I got married, settled down into a lovely 2-storey apartment in Berlin with my husband, dog, and a reliable job with an unlimited contract. I felt safe, supported, and solid. I had a place to call home, a signed marriage license vowing eternal love and support, and enough money to pay the bills and still go out to eat. I was set! I was rooted, and felt 100% solid and unshakeable. The poster-child of stability…! (Grandma was happy!)
Fast forward a couple of years, and I felt stuck in the mud. The safety and structure of the world I had created slowly turned into feelings of stagnation and rigidity. I reached a tipping point, and made an exit, doing a complete 180 on the stable existence I knew. All of a sudden I was homeless, partnerless, dogless, and found myself without an ounce of the feeling of security I was used to supporting me. I viewed my future with fear rather than excitement, and couldn’t shake the worry that I wouldn’t be able to make next month’s rent. I was all freedom, and no stability, and it took me many years (and many years of yoga) to learn to love and balance these two opposing actions.
You might, by now, have heard of a little book that is basically the bible of the yoga world, called the Yoga Sutras,
which was written by a sage (who may or may not have ever existed) named Patanjali, more than 1,000 years ago. It’s considered by most schools of yoga to be the integral guide on the practice of yoga, which outlines the suffering of the human condition, and how yoga can help transcend this suffering. One really famous line in the sutra reads, “Sthira Sukham Asanam,” which broadly translates to “be solid and steady in the poses, as well as comfortable and relaxed.”
In alignment-based yoga we dedicate a lot of time and thought to the interplay between the two seemingly opposing concepts of Sthira and Sukha, which we call muscular tone and organic expansion. The muscular tone equates to the Sthira, or stability, side of the pose, i.e. – bringing strength to the pose. The organic expansion is the Sukha – finding ease of movement and freedom once your base is strong and stable. The interplay of these two opposing forces is called balanced action, which brings the body into perfect harmony, or sattva. Once we know how to dance between these two extremes, energy can move freely throughout the body, the breath gets deeper and more expansive, and the poses feel more sustainable and expressive.
So what does this look like in our yoga practice?
Too much freedom in the poses can put the joints at risk for injury, by overstretching tendons and ligaments. When we harness the power of the muscles, even when we are in poses considered to be “stretches”, we bring muscular and structural support to the to the tendons and ligaments. Knowing how to use the muscles to hug the limbs into the midline of the body brings the bones into alignment, which helps prevent injury in the connective tissues, as well as prevents the muscles from over-stretching.
Too much stability, on the other hand, means that we feel tight and stiff in the pose, and not able to access a feeling of openness in our breath or our attitude. Stability is important, but it’s not the only piece of the puzzle, as the body wants to feel free and dynamic, rather than sticky and static.
To find and cultivate Sthira & Sukha, it’s is all about hugging the muscles in towards the bones, creating structure by drawing inwards from the outer body (like the limbs and extremities) towards the center of the body. Once stability is established, open into Sukha by lengthening in all directions and taking up space in the pose, enjoying the juicy expansion that a rock-solid foundation can allow for throughout the rest of the body.
Different poses highlight these concepts well, and we will look at some of them now.
Hint : things are about to get technical…!
A few poses to try :
In crescent, pulling the shin bones towards each other draws strength from the feet and legs into the pelvis, which is our ‘power center’ in this pose.
Make sure your stance is balanced : your feet are far enough apart from front to back to find freedom in your lower body, but not so far apart that you don’t feel stable. Feet are hip-width distance for a solid foundation. Energetically drag the feet towards one another as you press the shin bones towards the midline of the body and gently spiral your front thigh outwards. Feel the power of your legs, and from this power, lift the ribs up away from the hip points to create space in the side-body. Pull the low ribs back towards your spine, and from there, float the chest up and lengthen through the crown of the head and fingertips. You should feel the sturdiness of the legs, the muscular tone traveling from the feet up the legs and into the pelvis, and the freedom of the spine and rib cage as they are able to lift skywards from your steady base.
In Half Moon (Ardha Chandrasana) the anchor point of the pose is once again in the pelvis, with just as much attention coming into focus around the heart center in the chest.
This beauty of a pose might as well be the archetype when describing the balanced actions of stability and freedom. We still have one foot comfortably on the ground, yet our other pillar of support is a hand, which lowers the stability of the pose, but creates a sweet sense of ‘freedom from the known.’
Here, the Bandhas are really useful, in particular Hasta and Pada Bandha (hand and foot locks, respectively). Setting up for the pose, spread the toes wide, and once you are in the pose, make sure the toes stay wide. Spreading the space between the big toe mound and pinky toe side of the foot, broaden the entire ball of the foot as you press into all corners of the foot. This will activate and lift the inner arch, sending energy and stability up the leg. Hug your leg muscles in toward your bones, as if you are wearing a really tight pair of leggings and you need to suck the muscles in so the seams don’t burst. Draw this strength up into the pelvis, and from there, lengthen the spine away from the hips. Lean back, broaden the collar bone, and pop up on to your fingertips with the hand that’s on the ground. Suction cup the fingers towards the thumb and the thumb towards the fingers, vaccuuming energy and strength upwards into the wrist and arm, activating Hasta Bandha. Lengthen the shoulder blades down the back as you lean back and burst the chest skywards. If you feel enough Sthira, bending the top knee and coming into Ardha Chandra Chapasana is a great way to get even more heart-opening liberation in the pose.
Dancer pose is a shining example of how an unmovable foundation can lead to dynamic expansion in the pose.
Setting up Pada Bandha and finding your Drishti point are two main players in finding stability in the pose.
Stability in the standing leg : make sure the toes are un-crunched and the ball of the foot is spread wide. Press strongly into the corners of the foot, creating a lift in the inner arch and a suction of energy up the leg. Hug the muscles to the bones like you have put on a tight energy stocking and stand up tall. Square the hips, keeping the hip point of the lifted leg on the same horizontal plane as the other hip point. Hug the thighs in towards the center line of the body and keep the knees no wider than hip-distance apart to keep the femurs aligned and protect the SI joints.
Stability in the shoulder girdle : An incredible amount of external rotation is required in the shoulder joints in order to safely access Dancer Pose as shown here. Not only do the shoulders need to be super flexible, they also need to be powerful, so you can hold optimal alignment as you flip the grip and send your floating leg up towards the sun. This is the advanced version of the pose, but you can find just as much freedom in the pose with the standard grip and keeping the arms reaching straight back behind you.
As you reach back for your foot, flip your palm away from you and feel the upper arm bone roll into external rotation. This naturally retracts the shoulder blade, drawing its inner edge centrally towards the spine. Vacuum the arm bone back into the socket strongly (which will feel like shortening your arm), and do your best to keep it there. When flipping the grip to reach the arms above the head, it is essential to keep the shoulders safe by keeping the head of the humerus plugged into the shoulder socket as you draw the tips of the shoulder blades together down the back within each micro-movement of the transition. Once you get into the pose, with the elbows spiraled up towards the sky, keep your awareness focused on sending the shoulder blades down the back. Click the toes of the floating leg into the hands to activate the muscles that keep the top knee aligned. Keep hugging your limbs energetically towards the midline – shins, knees, and elbows. And don’t forget to breathe! Find movement and pulsation as you expand and contract, opening the heart and hugging the muscles in, finding your perfect balance between support and exploration as you dance in the pose.
In Pincha, our steady and stable base flips completely upside-down onto the forearms and hands. Here we engage muscular energy in the upper body to support our weight safely in the shoulder girdle, as well as find the freedom to lift the rib basket, hips, and feet high up towards the clouds.
Make sure when setting up for Pincha, that the elbows are no wider than shoulder-distance apart. This is the tripod of support in the pose, and when measured accurately, it’s unshakeable. From there, we can organize the hands a few different ways, either palms flat (if there is ample rotation in the shoulder girdle), or palms together and outer edges of the hands pressing down into the mat. Gently pull the forearms towards each other and spiral the upper arms away from your ears as you press down and forward with the elbows, creating a lifting effect throughout the chest and shoulders as the chest pushes back towards the thighs. As you begin to walk the feet forward into Dolphin and lift the hips, also lift the shoulders away from the ears, pressing down to lift the upper body like a balloon. When the feet can’t walk in any further, with super-human control, scissor kick the legs up towards the sun, squeezing the thighs strongly towards the plum line of the body once the legs are up. Maintain the squeezing of the forearms in, and press your entire base into the ground like you mean it to find long lines from the elbows up to the hips, from the hips out the tips of the toes. Hugging in towards the midline as you ‘root to rise’ is the golden ticket in Pincha.
Bringing both life, and the asana practice, into a place of harmony between freedom and stability releases us from fear and highlights our vibrant energy and creativity. Finding the middlepath between these to actions is the key to a blissful life, and a sustainable yoga practice.
It is possible to feel solid and free at the same time, rooted and dynamic wherever we place our feet. We can have our cake and eat it too!