This yoga is profound work. It may appear from the outside looking in as though we are merely making shapes with our bodies and breathing heavily. What happens on the mat however, is so much more than a physical exercise. Yoga is the practice of directing our attention into the present moment by means of our physical bodies. What happens on our mats extends beyond the boundaries of the studio; we learn to focus on experiential sensation and thus live in the here and now.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali discusses this state of being on our mats. Sthira Sukkham Asanam: Sutra 11.46: effort without tension and ease without being dull. In yoga we attempt to find the balance between the two. That seems easy enough. However it isn’t just the effort and exertion on the mat; it is an underlying topic of yoga. Whether in relation to the asana practice or beyond the mat in our daily interactions, this juxtaposition plays a quiet hum in the back of our minds. Effort without tension and ease without being dull.
I’d like to offer an example of this via the human body’s fascinating complexity, and how we can hopefully translate some of the concepts into our life both on and off the mat.
Within our skeletal muscle system we have an anatomical pathway termed reciprocal inhibition. Without getting into all the different receptor and neuron types, this refers to an action that happens in skeletal muscle groups on opposing sides of a joint; for example, the hamstrings group and the quadriceps group. Through a series of neural pathways to and from the spinal cord, these muscles work with one another to relax or soften, as the opposing group is active or contracting. This prevents both groups of muscles from contracting simultaneously, which can cause injury, or at least inefficient movement.
On the mat, a practitioner must activate their quadriceps at the front of the thighs in order to lengthen the hamstrings at the back of the thighs. To activate the quads we must straighten our legs completely. The natural reaction for people with tight hamstrings is to bend at the knee joint taking away the discomfort in the hamstrings and likewise not fully activating the quadriceps. If a student can place their sthira, their effort, in their quadriceps by lifting the knee caps and settling into discomfort, the hamstrings will start to open. To engage the quadriceps without tension or aggression is a fine line. We must become keenly aware that we do not hyperextend the knee joint, or take the activity into our jaws or faces. To soften the hamstrings we must remain alert amongst the letting go.
Off the mat, a prime example of Sthira Sukha in action is through conscious communication. Communication is a blend of sharing and receiving information. Similar to the inhibition loop above, the relationship between speaker and listener requires one to be active while the latter surrenders without being bored or vacant. When speaking, one must be clear, precise, and direct. The speaker must place their effort on the intention of the conversation. They must be aware that with too much force the listener will back away. One must be firm enough to make their point clear and yet spacious enough to keep the lines of communication open. A listener must be receptive, available and present. A listener must allow the words to land before responding or preparing their next statement. A listener must be at ease without being bored or planning their children’s meals for the day.
We often begin our yoga practice at the top of our mats in Samasthiti (mountain pose), becoming available to the present moment. With each Adho Mukha Svanasana (down dog) we have the opportunity to show up and be more present in our own skin. If a student is open, each practice offers another chance to become aware of how we are in the world. Learning where we need to place more effort and what areas need more ease. Perhaps one needs to place more effort in their feet during Dandasana (staff pose) or be more assertive off the mat. The relationship between our effort and our ease is exemplified in our asana but not limited to this. Sthira Sukam is a relevant concept that every practitioner should be aware of, and search for opportunities to incorporate into their lives. Play with it. Try it on. Listen more deeply.
Erin Evans - Banff, Alberta Canada
Erin Evans believes in the power of Yoga to heal, inspire, and transform lives.
She has devoted her life to yoga, to learn as much as she can and transmit these teachings in an easy to digest form. Erin is passionate about movement, yogic philosophy, humour, and people. Her teachings stem from a desire to encourage students to feel empowered, get strong and get clear. Erin places her heart in her students, watching them move and breath, in order to show them what they were unable to see.
Erin began her studies a decade ago with Ally Bogard of Gaiatri Yoga. She has since then travelled the world to study with many teachers. Evans is enamoured with Ashtanga Yoga as it leaves no stone unturned, demonstrating her areas of weakness, strength and possibilities for growth. Erin loves the fluidity and grace of Vinyasa Flow.
After completing her commerce degree from the University of Saskatchewan, Erin moved west to Alberta. She hopped around from mountain town to mountain town and now resides in Banff, Alberta. After a scrambling accident on Mount Norquay, Erin knew her only choice was to pursue her passion of teaching Yoga. She quit her 9- 5 and much to her parents dismay became a full time Yoga Teacher.
Erin runs teacher trainings close to home and abroad. When she is not on her mat, she can be found on snow covered peaks. Erin's muse is her child Micah James. Erin lifts her heart and bows her head to her father, mother and sister.