Sthira & Sukha Balance (or, the RAW of Yoga)

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Have you ever thought about it…

How does a tree stand tall and also give in the wind without breaking?
How does a jelly fish take in nourishment from the ocean and yet hold its form?

I think of a tree as being hard and solid and a jellyfish as being soft and permeable. I didn’t stop to consider that it isn’t as simple as that.

Leslie Kaminoff*, is an extraordinary yoga teacher, an anatomist and the author of one of my favorite books, Yoga Anatomy (with impeccable illustrations by Amy Matthews). He writes,

…in all living things, the principle that balances permeability is stability. The yogic terms that reflect these polarities are sthria and sukha. In Sanskrit, sthira can mean firm, hard, solid, compact, strong, unfluctuating, durable, lasting or permanent. Sukha is composed of two roots: su meaning good and kha meaning space. It means easy, pleasant, agreeable, gentle, and mild. 1

Renowned yoga teacher, T.K.V. Desikachar defines the terms this way:

sthira is “alertness without tension” and sukha is “relaxation without dullness.” 2

I love this definition as it highlights the interconnection of these qualities: there is some freedom in sthira and some form in sukha. The two forces are not opposites, but interrelated. Sthira and sukha are two sides of the same thing.

The Taoist principle of yin and yang describes the same idea. Like sukha and sthira, yin and yang acknowledges the intrinsic interdependence of light and dark, masculine and feminine, active and receptive. In the classic symbol, notice that there is some light in the dark and some dark in the light – not separate but integrated.

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In Nia, we practice with the quality of RAW: Relaxed, Alert, and Waiting. As a new Nia teacher, I joked that I was usually in the state of AW — alert and waiting but not relaxed at all. No big shock. It is my tendency to swing into a hyper-alert place of tension. I have to practice relaxing. I teach (and do everything) better when I have a sthira “alertness without tension” and also a sukha “relaxation without dullness.” By teaching (or doing anything) in a state of AW, I miss that healthful integration.

What do you notice about your relationship to the qualities of sthira and sukha? How could you introduce more balance in anything you do by being both alert without tension and relaxed without dullness?


* I am a huge Leslie Kaminoff fan. Some people binge watch Downton Abbey, I put Leslie Kaminoff youTube videos on a loop. Here’s one on the topic of sthira and sukha and how those two qualities are present in the spine.

1 [Look at me go with the footnotes!] Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews, p. 2
2 The Heart of Yoga, II.46 by T.K.V. Desikachar

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