Sustaining; Maintaining Your Seat (Asana)

By Sarah Halweil, July, 2008

oga Sutra II.46: Sthira Sukham Asanam = asana is a steady comfortable posture

Hold your posture longer especially headstand (salamba sirsasana) and shoulderstand (salamba sarvangasana) to practice this sutra.

The Yoga Sutras define asana as the posture that brings comfort and steadiness. Sounds simple enough, right?

The only problem is the challenges of everyday life, both physical and emotional, make it difficult to maintain this comfort and steadiness. In other words, what we buy, what we eat, and what chemicals we use in our houses and yards and on our cars and boats negatively affect our bodies and the world around us. Additionally, the physical “wear and tear” that we sustain prevents us from maintaining a steady and comfortable posture. When we are unable to experience comfort in our bodies, we are not able to live and exist in a responsible, peaceful and compassionate manner or to our fullest potential.

One solution offered by the Yoga Sutras is asana. Asana aides in ridding our bodies of impurities and congestions. We twist, bend forward and backward, move side to side, and turn upside down to make supple and cleanse our bodies.

And although this is not easy to accept, the postures that are more challenging can actually help us the most. They decongest and strengthen the body, and they train us to find contentment in difficult situations. If you struggle finding in certain poses, use props and proper alignment and then settle into the posture for as long as the teacher has asked as a way to practice finding peace in a place that you may not find pleasant. On the other hand, do not get attached to favorite postures. In postures that seem pleasant, even wonderful, realize that change is inevitable and practice contentment when asked to transition from these.

Additionally, strive to do new postures. Do not become dull or stagnant by always doing the same poses or the same thing in poses. Watch out for habit-forming activity and welcome change and newness. We cannot accept change when we operate from old habits.

Shoulderstand and headstand are perfect places to practice staying and finding contentment. Especially in shoulderstand, we go up and the variations start. We begin moving our legs, our thoughts wander, and we may wonder when the pose will end. Variations are fine, but why can’t we just stay with our legs up (unless asked to do a variation)? Practice stillness. In headstand, maybe our shoulders tire or hands get sore from gripping. How can we stay in headstand for longer than we might like to and figure out a way to be okay with it?

Consider another challenging situation—the process of birth. As a labor and delivery nurse, I have found that, whether it’s a vaginal birth or cesarean section, women who do best are those who practice calm breathing, use some method of meditation, and are willing to accept the moment at hand. They find asana when it is difficult. It is not about controlling the situation or having an agenda of how things will go. That is attachment and things will fall apart. Breathe in and accept, breathe out and settle. Find asana.

And, as the process of birth demonstrates, physical contortion isn’t the only path. Breathing, meditation, and chanting can also help us find that comfort.

None of this is easy, but we learn and practice. Once we have practiced sincerely on the mat, difficult situations will be more tolerable off the mat. We will think, act and react in a more peaceful and compassionate manner.

The goal is not a manic state of HAPPY!, (as Sanskrit scholar Manorama has said) but a state of contentment. Nor is the goal to rid ourselves of all emotion and become zombies. We can be passionate but attachment to our passions and lack of realization that they are permanent or responsible for our happiness will create suffering, therefore moving us away from asana.

Pema Chodron writes, “Everyday, at the moment when things get edgy, we can just ask ourselves, “Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?” Find stiram sukham asanam again and again.

Sarah Halweil

Sarah Halweil is a graduate of the 2004 Yoga Shanti Teacher Training Program. She graduated from the University of Colorado in Latin American Studies and Environmental Science, and Georgetown University in Nursing. She is also a graduate of the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy (UZIT) Program, and is the clinical coordinator for the Urban Zen program at Southampton hospital.

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