Sunday, 19 May 2013

Sthira Sukham Asanam: Firm But Calm

Firm But Calm: The Braselly Sisters

My basics course has started.  If you are coming or not, I'll use some of these posts to cover some of the stuff we talk about and practice.

There are so many important things to talk about in a basics course but this has to be keep coming back to: practice in a way that is firm but calm, steady but relaxed.

Personally, I feel that if you walk away from a class feeling tense, like you need a massage or like you need 4 hours of savasana then it might be time to rethink the way you are practicing (unless you wanted to feel that way!).

In yoga, being firm and calm while practicing is known as Sthira Sukham Asanam.  A quick google search will give you lots of information about this concept and its origins.  I am not a yogic scholar and I don't speak Sanskrit so I'll refrain from delving into an area better covered by others.  However, I can offer some ideas about how this concept relates to my practice and how you might apply it to yours.

As with anything I write, remember, these are suggestions--not instructions--try them safely and with awareness.  If they don't feel good then don't do them.  I must acknowledge the people I learned these ideas from: Paddy McGrath, Simon Borg Olivier, and Bianca Machliss.  Any errors in interpreting their teachings is mine.  Please try to attend their classes if you can.

Can you practice in a way that you can hold a posture but tense less?  Perhaps this means backing off your maximum slightly.  Teachers I have been to suggest 20% of maximum possible muscle activation as a guide.

It is difficult to tell whether you are activating 20 or 30 or 40% so don't worry about it, just remember that the body needs to keep moving as you practice and the more you tense the more difficult it is to move.

Remember, we want to build strength, but a fluid strength that supports free movement rather than restricts it.

Perhaps it also means checking in with your throat, your jaw, your tongue, the corners of your eyes and your gaze as you practice.  These points often hold what I call 'secret tension'.

They are some of the points in our body that are under dual control--that is you can consciously activate them but they can also be unconsciously activated.  If you find your teeth clenching, your brows furrowed, your tongue sticking out then your whole pose will feel tense.

Another suggestion for most of us is to see if we can breathe into our belly a little more.  Let the posture create firmness in the abdomen without you interfering and then breathe into it.  This should instantly help you tense less and feel more relaxed.

Can you practice in a way that you can be in a posture but stretch less?  Perhaps this means not going as deeply into the posture.  It definitely means not moving too quickly into the posture.

If you move too quickly you will likely trigger a 'stretch reflex', which is basically your brain reacting to a sudden movement and giving your body a message to tense to protect itself.  For most of us, the last thing we want in a forward bend is our hamstrings suddenly tensing up as it will inhibit our ability to move into the pose.

If you feel too much stretch in a posture and move too deeply you are also at risk of injuring yourself.  And, if the stretch is felt really close to the joints, you are probably applying too much stretch to less elastic structures like ligaments and tendons.  These do not spring back into place like muscles do and, over time, over-stretching them can lead to permanent damage.

On an ego level it can be difficult to practice in this way since many of us come to yoga wanting to be more flexible!  However, over time, with mindful practice the body will begin to move more freely with greater range without you needing to hold in passive postures for minutes to stretch out the hamstrings/calves/butt/quads/traps/lats etc.  One of the reasons is because the way we practice in my classes encourages active movement that triggers relaxation responses. (Note, I don't mean to suggest it is wrong to be 'passive', there are many people who teach this way and it is just different but not wrong).

Can you practice in a way so that you think less?  Hmmm, this is a hard one, isn't it?  Especially when you are new to something.  It's one of the reasons I am not instructing the breath in my basics classes, aside from telling people to breathe naturally at the beginning and into the belly if they can.  If you have to think about breathing and moving when you are new it can be very confusing and sometimes frustrating.

The way I am structuring my basics courses is to give verbal instruction in the beginning to clarify a few points, but, gradually, through the class, to talk less and allow your body to find it's way without having to listen and try to interpret what I am saying.

This doesn't mean that you move without intelligence.  You eventually learn to move with your body's own intelligence after it learns some basic movement patterns.

Can you continue a dedicated practice that is mindful so that you feel good? The three previous points are a bit of a 'how to' guide: tense less, stretch less, think less (something I learned from Yoga Synergy) that tease out some of the basic principles of my own practice.

With this final suggestion I ask you whether you can find a way to be be fully present and focussed as you practice.  Be firm in the sense of commitment and dedication.  Be calm so that you feel relaxed and free and don't hurt yourself (with thoughts or movements).  Be mindful that you wake up with a new body each day--we are not the same person every day.  Things are always changing.  To leave a yoga class feeling good our practice needs to reflect this constantly changing state.

Sthira Sukham Asanam is not usually discussed the way I have discussed it.  Actually, I don't know that I have ever seen it discussed this way so you might like to do that google search and read what other people have to say!

For me, the important thing to remember is you have not come to yoga to suffer.  If you tense too much, stretch too much, think too much you will likely experience tension in body or mind.  Be respectful of yourself and find a way to be fully present in your practice so that you feel great and wake up each morning excited about it!

***End Note
As you read this will no doubt find the influence of my great teachers--Paddy McGrath and the Yoga Synergy team.  Of course, any errors in interpretation of their teachings is my fault.  Best to always go straight to the source and if you ever have the chance, please go and practice with them.

***Photo credits:
These two ladies look stable, steady, focussed, strong but at the same time calm, peaceful, relaxed: the essence of Sthira Sukham Asanam
I got this photo from:
who in turn got it from:

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