We’ve been blessed with an extended, mild and colorful fall replete with shin-high sidewalk piles of crackling gold and burnt sienna. And have you seen the green underbellies of the leaves this year? It’s as though they’re hanging on for dear life as reluctant as we are to bid a farewell to sun and warmth. It’s undeniable though. We may be having a few mercifully temperate days, but November is really here and with it come the colder, darker skies. Unless you’re a winter bird, you’re probably beginning to feel the tenseness of the season. We clench up this time of year, we draw inward, we resist, protest, get sad, anticipate and even dread. If these inclinations sound familiar to you, please join us in a great metaphorical counterpose this November, the cultivation of a profound ease of being.
This month we focus on sukha, a Sanskrit word meaning joy, ease, pleasure, softness, gentleness, or bliss. Often it gets paired with its counterpart sthira, which means steadiness and firmness, the idea being that yogis – whether they’re executing a pose, sitting for meditation or encountering daily life – are adept at balancing these two qualities. Too much force and your practice is fraught with rigidity. Too little firmness and you’re all stretch but no strength. The texts go so far as to say, if you don’t have both you’re not doing yoga.
You might know the feeling. Let’s say you’re executing a new and challenging pose. You get in, you’re doing it! Then, just as soon, you collapse onto the floor gasping for breath realizing you’d been holding it in all along. There is reason to feel good about the accomplishment, no doubt, but it’ll take a dozen or more times before you experience the lift and lightness that are possible in yoga asana.
You might hear us saying in class, “Find a comfortable edge.” This is a nod toward the sthira/sukha balance. Yoga does require that you push beyond your boundaries, but there should be a sense of yielding in your push, a softness, a patience, a kindness, and a sensitivity as you progress in your practice. Yoga is not meant to be painful or forceful, it’s meant to enhance joy, to put a lightness in your step and a lift in your heart. Anything else is, as they say, calisthenics. If you’re keeping sukha in mind, you still attempt those elusive poses, but you keep a careful eye on your breath, and you allow the process to be sweetly slow. You’ll get there, you’ll get there, there’s no rush, and you’ll be less likely to get injured along the way.
Leslie Kaminoff, author of “Yoga Anatomy,” describes sukha at the cellular level using the concepts of containment and permeability. A cell’s outer layer, he points out, must be firm enough to remain a cohesive entity but permeable enough to allow nutrients in and waste out. It’s quite a feat, isn’t it? If either of these qualities is missing, existence as we know it falls apart. So too in our human relations. We must have resolve and stability if we are to survive, but if we are to flourish we must have adaptability too. Some situations call for a certain severity, but we cannot forget to also be soft lest we make ourselves (and everyone around us) miserable.
Here’s something you can try. Next time you take a yoga class, experiment with creating more sukha than sthira in the practice. Slow down, back off, ease up. Drink in your breath like it’s a sweet, silken nectar. If the teacher invites you to try something that’s going to pull you too far out of your comfort zone be bold enough to decline. Don’t go deep unless it feels amazing to go deep. In the pinnacle moment of your poses, allow your heart to swell beyond its former capacity. In each moment that you can, actively shed your resentments and criticisms toward self and others. Let your chest burst wide open with compassion and love. This is sukha… and we need more of it!
It’s characteristic of the society in which we were reared that we sometimes approach our yoga practice with a sense of ambition or competition. Deep down, of course, we know that that kind of approach pulls us away from the more metaphysical side of the practice, the side that reminds us we are each just one small part of a bigger whole. Sustaining awareness of our interconnection is what the sages call reaching enlightenment. In a state of enlightenment we cannot help but experience feelings of belonging, warmth, profound gratitude, joy, and altruism, the many shades of sukha. It’s okay that we’re always getting pulled back down to earth because the door to bliss is always there and it’s always wide open, if we can only remember to look for it.