One of the most famous yoga sutras—the short aphorisms in yoga attributed to Patanjali—is sthiram sukham asanam. The phrase means essentially that your asana, your seat or yoga posture, should be both steady (sthiram) and sweet (sukham). Some interpretations of the phrase indicate that we should set up our seated postures with appropriate support to allow for a comfortable meditation. Others suggest that our yoga postures need a balance of work, muscular energy, and proper alignment in order to find the sweetness of a stretch or a deep breath. Yet another interpretation is that we must take care of our bodies, the seat of our very existence, so we can enjoy our lives.
After spending an intensive weekend working on hands-on assists in yoga practice, I’ve been thinking a lot about sthiram as support. The best hands-on assists are the ones that simply offer support; a hand on the low back or a bit of pressure on the feet is often enough to allow the student to find the stability to ease himself more deeply into a pose. Assists aren’t about manipulating someone into a specific shape, but rather they provide that little bit of extra solidity and safety so that the student can go as far into the pose as feels right. The support, the sthiram, is what makes the sweetness, the sukham, accessible.
This isn’t just about assists, of course, but about support of all kinds. This is obvious in the behavior of children whose parent has disappeared—she is anxious, and unlikely to be willing to play and explore until she can locate her parent. On the other hand, if a parent is too involved with the child, doing everything for her and refusing to leave her alone, the child can’t develop the skills she needs to trust her own instincts and take any risks. She can’t learn to play and explore for herself. If the child knows, however, that the parent is nearby, accessible but not controlling or manipulating the child’s behavior, she’ll happily play and explore and try things and have fun out there. When we know we are supported, then we can play.
As we grow into adults, many of us have to learn how to parent ourselves, to provide our own sources of support. That might mean eating healthy food because we know it makes us feel better, or carving out time to go to yoga class even though the kids want us home. It might mean finding ways to make enough money to afford healthy food and yoga classes. Support means expressing appropriate boundaries and standing up for our needs. It isn’t always easy.
The thing we sometimes forget about support is that it’s in the service of sweetness, of sukham. We don’t do the hard things because they are hard or because routine is inherently good. We do them so that we can enjoy our bodies and our relationships. We do it to remember what it is we go to work for.
So perhaps now is a time to consider how we are supporting ourselves, and perhaps more importantly, why. What joy do we make possible when we set boundaries? How is our hard work providing sweetness? Is some of that hard work making us miserable with no joyful effect? Have we forgotten what we are working so hard for? How can we rebalance so that our strong, solid support can lead to delightful ease and play?