Sthira Sukham Asanam
We have learnt that one of the 8 limbs of Yoga is Asanas. Most importantly, asanas should be steady, effortless, and at ease. In our first few lessons, Master Sree was always reminding us to do practise with a smile, and not a scrunched up face in pain. (I think I still do at times make a pained face unknowingly :p)
Well, one of the sutras that we are learnt too is Sthira Sukham Asanam.
Sthira means Steady, Firm, Strength and Sukham means At Ease, Joyful, Comfortable, Flexibility.
Applying Sthira and Sukha on our mats during yoga practice also means relaxation physically and mentally. When practicing asanas, it should be free of tension and strain, and engaging muscles evenly. One should also ensure calm, rhythmic and conscious prana to maintain effortless-ness while breathing. These helps to balance flexibility and strength, achieving “Sthiram Sukham Asanam”.
One may wonder how to achieve both strength and ease at the same time. It is definitely not easy, but it is achievable with conscious intention and self-awareness of your body. Recognising the reactions of the body while in the asana, the areas where your muscles are feeling the tension, and observing your breath.
The breath is an indication for sthira and sukha. If you are panting, or holding your breath, it may be a sign that you are struggling in the pose or trying to push over your limits. Inhale, and Exhale to find stability in your poses and ease. Allow your breath to guide your practice.
Besides breathing and intended pauses to enjoy the stretch, to achieve a balanced asana practice, it is also important to include counterposes in your yoga sequence.
Have you ever wondered why counterposes are incorporated in your practice? I did.
Counterposes allow one to “catch your breath”, and feel the stretch in the other direction. Counterposes help in resetting of your spine, pelvis or muscles, making sure that no remaining tensions or strains are felt in your body after your practice, preventing injuries. It also allows the mind to reset, back to a state of equilibrium, before moving on.
What is a Counterpose?
Counterpose or Pratikriya is a posture that helps to neutralize the body after performing a particular asana. Its purpose is to restore balance in the body, ensuring safe and effective practice. It helps to integrate the action of the preceding posture, through neutralizing or sometimes opposing actions.
This means whenever one stretches in one direction, one should also balance the posture out with a stretch in the opposite direction.
Noting that your muscles are also aligned differently in different directions, you can also include twisting poses in your sequence as counterposes e.g. Seated Half spinal twist post(Vakrasana), Revolved side angle (Parvritta Parsvokonasana)
What kind of counterposes for which asanas?
Well, there are no set rules for types of counterposes for which asanas. It is more important to be aware of your own body, and feel where the tension is when performing the asana. Whenever you perform a strong asana, do a simple, gentle pose/asana to relieve the tension. Choose a pose that you a breathe in. If you move back and forth too quickly between two extremes, it may even cause injuries.
Here are some suggested counterposes for certain asanas:
- Chest-openers (Wheel (Urdhva Dhanurasana), Camel (Ustrasana), Bow Pose(Dhanurasana))
If the chest-opener is too deep, you may do a Knees-to-chest (Pawan Muktasana), which helps to stretch and neutralize spine, or a supine one leg to chest pose.You may also want to do a Supine twist to stretch out your lower and mid-back muscles. Gentle forward bends like Baddha Konasanaalso works.
- Forward fold (Paschimottanasana)
In forward fold, you are stretching your back of the body e.g. spine, hamstrings, and your quadriceps and hip flexors will shorten.
A gentle backbend counterpose would be Upward plank (Purvottanasana), or gentle bridge pose (Setu Bandhasana) to help lengthen your quads and hip flexors, as well as open front side of body and stretch shoulders and chest.
- Headstand (Srirasana)
After completing headstand, or handstand, do a gentle child’s pose (Balansana) for a few moments after inversion to relieve pressure on head and arms.
- Shoulder stand/Plough (Sarvangasana/Halansana)
A common counterpose for shoulder stand or plough pose would be to do a gentle bridge pose or Fish pose (Matsyasana) as it helps to counter stretch the neck. You may also want to do Reclined hero pose (Supta Vajrasana), or Camel pose (Ushtrasana).
- Universal Counter pose– Child’s pose (Balansana)
Balansana is the universal counterpose as it allows for rest between poses, and allows breath to regain a steady rhythm.
With the right awareness of our breath and what our bodies need, let us work towards the same goal of achieving Sthira Sukham Asanam in our yoga practice, and practice with a smile 🙂