Sthira and Sukha are popular yoga terms meant to convey a “yin and yang” sensibility. I think of sthira as “roots” and sukha as “wings.” A more accurate translation of the Sanskrit would be “stability” vs. “lightness.” When practicing Ashtanga yoga I have always sought the sukha, or the potential to fly. I sometimes giggle aloud when my feet release skyward or my heart floats up to the ceiling. It is such a rare treat to escape gravity’s pull.
Sthira, however, is quite different – in many cases it requires the engagement of the larger, lower, muscle groups (the quads, the glutes, the abdominals). For two weekends now I have been reminded that stability is key. Scot, our instructor, has had us feel our feet, bend our toes, challenge our inner and outer thigh muscles…he even put us in cat pose and had strangers balance their bodies atop us in a form of improv contact. These undulating movements required constant shifting of my center of gravity in order to take someone else’s flight – or to entertain my own.
I thought I understood: ground yourself before you take off in flight!
Once again, I required re-direction. I overheard Scot explain that being actively grounded allows the upper body to be consciously free. “Active” being the key word. Do not rest in your present position – but fully feel it for what it is (whether it be crooked floorboards, the push of another body against your spine, or the outward turn of your imperfect feet.) By doing this you are not actively seeking flight or lightness of being. You are instead grounding yourself to the earth and thereby engaging an interior reservoir of strength. Only then will your body feel safe enough to bravely reach upwards.
That is when the lesson sunk in. I have lived this lesson. For years I tried to create and recreate stable, safe footing for my daughter who suffers from addiction. I bounced between “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Maybe I should have said this. Maybe I missed something developmentally. Maybe a new school will work. Maybe a new friend circle. Maybe a new therapist. Maybe a new medication. Maybe exercise. Maybe more consequences. Maybe less consequences. Maybe a different insurance plan. Maybe, maybe, maybe….” I left no rock unturned. I needed her, us, to be free. But sukha was nowhere to be found.
I remember the moment when I finally accepted our situation. I was driving and the sun was setting and and my whole sense of being was flooded by the fact that my daughter had relapsed again. I didn’t know how to be. How could I just be with this? I remember breathing and releasing into that moment with a complete acceptance of the truth. It was dusk and the sky opened up before me and I thought, “this.” There is “this” too.
This acceptance, which I still feel vaguely uncomfortable with, was a long time coming. I had to fully acknowledge that change may not be possible – at least not in this present moment. This is not an easy thing for a mother to fully feel. But once I did I noticed the sky. It sounds so cliche – but at that moment I was fully awakened to the incredulous sky. I also understood this to be the second part of Scot’s admonition: to be consciously free. I chose to see the sky.
Since that day, nearly three years ago, I have looked upwards and found something akin to flight. And, incredulously, for two years my daughter has stood on terra firma.
We are free.
4 thoughts on “Sthira vs. Sukha”
I’ve got the chills!
Brave and beautiful.
This is absolutely beautiful. To be quite honest, I have never heard of “Sukha” being used in such a spiritual manner, but clearly it plays a significant role in the practice. Interestingly, I think of Sukha in a neuroscientific context as a manipulation in brain activity. The juxtaposition you provide here is amazing and the line you’ve drawn between the two definitions is wonderful.
This is really interesting because the idea of “Sukha” in Vedic religion is always considered the opposite of “dukkah.” Seeing the word compared with Sthira in such a modern sense (with such relevance) is just fascinating.
I read this piece and immediately noticed all of these underlying concepts that really weave this intricate web of connections from spirituality to science and prove them relevant in our daily lives. (स्थिर) Sthira’s root word, “stha” also means “to stand up.” Religiously, it is actually translated as courage to resolve or faithfulness. Which gives such a powerful message in this piece.
Reading this has been so inspiring. The way you formulate such a complicated and intangible ideal truly is impressive You are an incredible writer!
I can not believe just a few years ago you were a student of mine! Thank you for drawing a neuroscience parallel – I profess a preference for the solidity of science (over spirituality) but when we are given something which appears insurmountable/unsolvable.. . sometimes we seek new paths of understanding. (And DT – YOU are the one who is incredible. xo)