Sthira Sukham Asanam
Yoga Sutra, 2:46
In my opinion, Stira Sukham Asanam is one of the most important sutras in the Yoga Sutra, especially as far as our physical practice is concerned. It is guidance of how we should be practicing our asanas (or postures). To translate loosely, it means asana should be done strongly but without tension; with ease but without laziness.
I think of it often, especially when I get to one of the more challenging balancing poses such as Utthita Hasta Padangustanasana, in which one stands with one leg extended, grasping the big toe with the same side hand, then exhale into a forward bend. Stay for five breaths, then inhale up to stand, exhale leg out to side while the gaze moves to the opposite side. Stay for five breaths. Inhale leg back to center, exhale one more forward bend over your leg, inhale up, exhale both hands to waist as the leg remains up with toes pointed. Stay for five breaths.
As you can see, it is not a simple pose, with challenges of balance, strength and flexibility.
The first time I encountered it I think I actually fell right on to the floor thinking that this was some new kind of torture yogis had invented to prevent well meaning people from accomplishing their goal. After some more considered reflection, I decided I would tackle this pose one element at a time. I realized I didn't need to be able to do the whole thing in one go - I could master the first bit, then add on the next bit and so on. At that point, the most challenging part of the pose was my being ok with the fact that I was not doing it perfectly. If I focused on how I was doing the pose incompletely - over I would fall. When I accepted the state of it for that day without bringing on thoughts like "I can't" or "never", then things went better.
Over the course of several months, I did manage to build up the pose to the point where I had all the elements down. But I still don't hit it every day. Beyond the strength to hold up my leg, the sense of balance to remain upright for that length of time and the flexibility to bend and open, I still need sthira sukham asanam. It is a state of mind and a state of body. You can't have one without the other. And you don't have yoga at all without it.
I was thinking about this state of mind and body in zazen. The same sense of effort without tension, ease without laziness is necessary. I also was thinking about Utthita Hasta Padangustasana. Zazen is certainly as challenging as that pose, but challenging for its utter simplicity as opposed to the complexity of the yoga pose. It occurred to me that I have been tackling zazen in the same sort of purist way that I first approached UHP - thinking I had to achieve some kind of instant perfection (well, the kind of instant perfection that has already taken me years not to attain). I haven't really allowed for a steady build up of skills without self recrimination. Maybe today I don't get my leg up so high, or I can't really shift my gaze without toppling over (metaphorically speaking, of course). The anxiety about not getting it - whatever it is - has been as much hindrance as all my plotting and planning and other mind chatter.
Sthira Sukham Asanam
Where else can we apply this?