It’s often said that Patanjali has little to offer on asana practice. Even so, I reckon that sthira sukham asanam (YS 2.46 “asana should be stable and comfortable”) is one of the better known sutras. But I confess Patanjali’s advice here has always just seemed something that might possibly apply to other people, but definitely not to me. Definitely not yet anyway. I thought I could see it in other people’s practice when I was distracted enough in class to cop a look at those around me, but that was clearly because they were more advanced than me and for someone at my level it was surely all about effort, keeping up, and desperately dragging my body through sequences and into contortions my muscles never knew were possible.
Now among all the many things my injured hamstring has been teaching me of late, the lesson of experiencing more (what my type A personality can’t help but think of as achieving more) by doing less figures quite high. So maybe this is my moment to start embracing sthira sukham asanam. And I wrote recently about stopping half way, and how I found this a really helpful approach in overcoming my natural tendency to push, push, push to the furthest limit on and off the mat. But nothing in yoga/life stays still and no single strategy works for very long. And now I find that veering away from the Scylla of too much effort can easily lead towards the Charybdis of too little effort, especially when coupled with a fear of the consequences of overdoing it.
Today I became aware that last week’s mindful measures have become this week’s cosseting safety blanket. Once again I found myself resting halfway up a steep hill while my husband forged ahead and promptly disappeared a few olive terraces above me. I settled in to bask in the present moment, enjoy the scenery, watch the insects buzz busily around me. And this was lovely. I could have stayed just here quite happily. Stable and comfortable indeed. It was certainly the right way to approach things last week when I was taking a lot of care not to overwork my hamstring in hillwalking. And yet the stopping halfway approach somehow seemed too easy today. A resignation more than a skilful resting. An opting out, even a giving up. It’s like that point in class where my teacher asks us if we need individually to rest, hold the pose, or move further into the pose. It’s a personal decision. But not a head decision, more a body decision.
So one deep breathe later and I continued up the hill. It just felt like a ‘move further into the pose’ moment. Further up and all was feeling good. Husband even asked me to take the lead, picking out the best way upward. Tricky terrain, all moving rocks underfoot and thorny maquis clawing at my legs. So I toiled away steadily, keeping alert, taking it slowly. And once up at the top there was masses of wonderfully preserved Classical masonry and beautiful views inland over scrub covered mountain slopes as well as out to sea past the sandy beach and into the blue yonder. Now it was right to pause and savour the moment — and in company!
Back down at sea level and despite the brisk March water temperature I couldn’t resist a quick celebratory frisk in the shallows! Feeling happy, feeling accomplished. Wariness overcome, fear of discomfort confronted. Yes, there’s a nagging in my right leg now, but hopefully it’s just the tug of an underused muscle rather than my tendons seriously complaining.
So in this weird experience where life and yoga seem to circle round each other, the experiences of one informing the other (though in which direction I’m never sure), I realise that ‘comfortable and stable’ is an important aim in asana practice and one that I’d do well to pay more attention to. It will help me guard against striving always towards deeper and further. But equally important is the rejection of complacency and the automatic avoidance of anything approaching discomfort, be it mental or physical.
There’s a whole load more I’ve started wondering about in terms of calculated risk-taking (defining ‘risk’ the the broadest/least risky sense possible) that determine the best course of action at any time. Plus there’s so much hiding behind my airy reference to ‘head decisions’ compared to ‘body decisions’ and I’m only just starting to be attuned to the difference. My brain has always told me that it was in control. Now I’m not so sure. I’m starting to notice some dissenting murmurs from below the neckline…
All a work in progress and much to pay attention to back on the mat. For now there’s just the inevitable flask of Greek mountain tea as I have an existential moment watching the waves endlessly lapping to the shore.