Most of my new students arrive at yoga class ready to exercise.
They are ready to stretch, to balance, and maybe sweat a bit, so they can change, or fix, or maintain their bodies.
Then I ask them to breathe.
Over and over, I ask them to breathe. Finally, we move a bit, but I ask them to move slowly, or gently, or gradually.
This is not something most adults are used to doing. Especially in an exercise class.
But I wouldn't insist on it so strongly if it didn't work so well.
You see, yoga is not like other types of physical exercise.
Or it least, it ought not be, because it was designed to work differently. Yoga is about being able to direct the mind, because great change is possible (inevitable, really) when our perspective is cleared.
And as far as yoga is concerned, the mind and body are linked together so strongly, that moving and placing the body in a specific way is a very good preparation for meditation.
Patanjali's Yoga Sutra gives the properties of yoga postures:
Posture (āsana) is steady (sthira) and comfortable (sukha). Yoga postures have support and adequate strength, and they do not create pain or exacerbate medical conditions.
It is a perfect balance of effort (prayatna) and effortlessness (śaithilya) combined (bhyām) with complete and endless (ananta) concentration (samāpatti).
This feeling of perfect balance is so different than what we do in exercise and other physical work.
In exercise, we are encouraged to push beyond our limits, to lift one more, run faster or farther, and to get the job done. It's a test of will to overcome your physical limitations.
But will and tenacity can be misguided. They are directed by the ego, and can drive you full-speed in directions that you thought you wanted to go, but end up bringing you frustration or pain, upset your life or relationships.
I'm not denigrating exercise or physical fitness. But yoga is in a different category of activity. It's in the business of helping you see clearly. And letting you perpetuate habits of overworking, overcompensating or avoiding conflict is not in the program.
In my own practice, sthira-sukha is the absence of certain habits.
There is no setting of my jaw, no determination to achieve or prove something, and there is no reaching or pulling further. It feels like there is an internal engine giving me purpose and strength, but it's not willpower. It's a steady, feeling, quiet focus.
When I teach, I see too much sthira when my student's faces become hard around the corners of their eyes and lips. Their body language becomes rigid and closed. Their breath is loud or stops or moves in a sudden whoosh instead of a soft, steady stream. They seem to be pushing or holding on fiercely.
I see too much sukha when a student's spine looks collapsed. When their bodies surrender and suddenly look too heavy for them to hold. Their breath is uneven or too faint or quick. They are disengaged, and their attention flits from one thing in the room to another.
When my students achieve sthira-sukha in class, I can see their eyes and faces are calm. Their bodies have a sense of endless inner strength. They are fully invested in the practice, and move and breathe with a purposefulness that brings the work to a deeper level than just their bodies.
Until they have sthira-sukha, they are doing exercise. Yes, it might be useful exercise. But when they have the balance of stability and ease, they are doing yoga.
If you've ever been in the room during one of my classes, I'm sure you have felt the difference.
When people are really doing yoga, they have presence and a deep power about them. They aren't just going through a series of motions, or following instructions to get somewhere. They are completely engaged, and they get more benefit from the practice as a result.
What they are learning through their bodies becomes a part of them.
It takes repeated practicing over a period of time to know what sthira-sukha feels like, and to be able to find it again. That's why I encourage students to practice, every day. It doesn't have to be a full 60-minute sequence to be incredibly useful. Five or ten minutes is enough to remember how to be stable and easy in your body. And eventually, that feeling becomes the norm.
When it does, then you are no longer distressed (an-abhighātaḥ) by conflict (dvaṅdva).
When you have mastered this feeling of sthira-sukha, you know it so well that things which caused stress before no longer bother you.
You know you are capable of meeting challenges directly, without strain or avoidance.
You no longer worry about what will happen, because you feel safe, strong and easy inside.
The feeling of steadiness and ease has become a part of who you are.