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Art in Action is a weekly post: a simple, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

Want to do anything better? Introduce the concepts of sthira and sukha to anything you do. (You can read more about sthira and sukha here.) These Sanskrit terms can be translated in lots of ways but my favorite is that offered by master yoga teacher, T.K.V. Desikachar:

Sthira is alertness without tension.
Sukha is relaxation without dullness.

Here are 5 steps to doing anything with more skill and ease by using sthira and sukha:

1. Identify a Thing you want to do More Skillfully

It can be anything.

Your Thing can be a physical endeavor like running or yoga or healing an injury. It can be an activity like studying for an exam, giving a presentation, or writing an essay. It can be creating (or letting go of) a habit like driving or eating or shopping more mindfully, exercising every day or flossing. Your Thing can be a relationship issue like reaching out to friends more, listening more attentively to your child or partner, or being kinder to yourself.

Whatever it is you want to do better, identify it clearly. Whatever it is, we’ll call this Your Thing.

2. Observe with Curiosity

Notice how you do Your Thing. Get curious about the details. At this point, make no effort to change anything, just see how you do your do.

Do you run with grim determination in all weathers regardless of how you feel? Do you put off studying until the last minute and then casually read your notes? Do you start popping cookies as soon as the kids go to bed? Do you zone out when your partner starts telling you about her hapless coworker?

Without judgement or criticism, get curious about your tendencies when you do Your Thing.

3. Tweak by adding Sthira

The next time you do Your Thing, experiment with adding some sthira: alertness without tension.

Drive to work with awareness but without gripping the wheel. As you put your PowerPoint slides together, do it with focus and attention but without hyperventilating about what the boss will think. Invite a friend over to lunch without winding yourself into a perfectionist knot about the Caesar dressing.

See what happens when you add more sthira tension-free alertness to Your Thing.

4. Tweak by adding Sukha

Do Your Thing again and this time focus on adding sukha: relaxation without dullness.

In yoga class, notice what you can relax (eyes, jaw, eyebrows?) and still keep the form of the posture. At the dinner table, take time between bites to pause and breathe without zoning out and shoveling in. When your child wants to tell you a story, see if you can soften your eyes and hands while still listening.

Again, get curious about what happens when you add some sukha relaxation without lifelessness as you do Your Thing.

5. Repeat steps 2-4 as needed

We all have tendencies and we all sometimes swing to alert hyper-vigilance or floaty numbed-out. It’s about practice, not perfection. Like the levels on a stereo, adjust the dials of sthira and sukha depending on the moment and the Thing at hand. Have fun tossing a little Sanskrit wisdom into the mix of your day.

BONUS: Compassion Boost

When I pay close attention to my own habits I have the opportunity to make more skillful, happier choices. An added bonus is that my awareness of my tendencies ups my compassion for others.

When a hurried driver passes me, zigging into the lane in front of me, I can recognize myself in their tension and stress (and I can up my own sthira to stay clear of them on the road). When my teen is zoning out on the Internet instead of doing their midterm paper, I can connect to times when I’ve relaxed myself into a stupor.

More kindness to me allows me more kindness to those around me. The practice is a gift to yourself and to your relationship with the world.

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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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