Find Ease in Your Effort

Some years ago, I decided to stop using the phrase, “if you’re comfortable,” in my teaching - as in, “if you’re comfortable, take your hands off the floor and raise your arms to the sky.” But sometimes it slips out and I smile. Comfortable? If I wanted to be comfortable, wouldn’t I be sitting on my couch right now? Is anyone comfortable in a lunge? I understand the use of that phrase, though. When a teacher uses it, she’s saying, “if you’re comfortable, work harder.” This is because we’re not going for comfortable all the time. The phrase most yogis live by is sthira sukham asanam. Sthira translates to “steadiness or firmness”, sukham to “ease or gentleness”, and asanam to “pose”. This phrase is from the ancient Yoga Sutras, a text that’s chock full of philosophical statements on how to lead a happier life through yoga. If we embody this phrase, we look for a balance of work and ease in all our poses. This balance makes yoga unique; and this approach can be taken off the mat and into our daily activities.

In most of our endeavors, be they exercise or general life activities, we skew toward work, firmness and strength. We work hard to get the job done, to go the distance, to reach the goal, or in pursuit of a hard work ethic. We don’t cultivate ease until we make a concerted effort to relax, if ever. Our easeful times need to have labels - vacation, restorative, hammock, pool. But what if you could find ease within your work as well? What if there was a balance of steadiness and ease in mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, changing the oil and wallpapering the bathroom? What if this balance existed in your morning run, your weight lifting session, your violin-playing and your stage performance? We often equate great athletes with hard work, for good reason. But when athletes reach a certain level, you see this balance of steadiness and gentleness. You see presence in the moment and relaxation when and where work isn’t needed. Michael Jordan has spoken of how the game seemed to move in slow motion for him. Even though he was performing (versus practicing), in game films, I think you can see the rocking back and forth between work and non-effort responsible for his clarity. The ability to be present does bring a feeling of things moving in slow mo. I think each of us has at least one activity where we find this balance and, subsequently, the clarity that arises organically.

Yoga is an embodied practice, by its very nature. You can work the yoga poses without ever finding space for ease, but then you would’t really be practicing yoga. You’d be performing asanas; that’s all. As you build awareness in your practice, the moments of steadiness and ease show themselves. A symmetry of the two develops and informs your off-mat life. Barring the situations that call for all work or all ease, you’ll cultivate the concept of sthira sukham asanam in all activities.