Sthira Sukham Asanam
“Postures should be stable and comfortable”
Yoga Sutra 2.46, Sage Patanjali
One of the great things about a yoga practice is bringing what we learn on the mat to the rest of our life. But even if you don’t practice (physical) yoga, you can still benefit from its wisdom.
From Patanjali’s ancient collection of 196 “threads” or aphorisms, comes this oft-cited sutra 2.46, which we can take literally—referring to the body—or can experience in its many applications to our busy lives, which can get off track more easily than we would like to admit.
On the mat, we apply Sthira Sukham Asanam by creating a grounded posture—steady, firm and engaged (sthira). But to experience the posture (asana) without constriction or anxiety, we must also find comfort in the pose, the ability to “abide in that space” (sukham). We practice a balance between effort and ease.
How important this idea is for our lives . . . and how challenging to live out.
We know all about effort. It is a core part of our conductor DNA. Musical study and programming, creative teaching, people skills, technical savvy, and management expertise demand a level of effort that, if unchecked, can cause us to go into overdrive. We find ourselves grasping, fearful of pausing for just one minute in case we forgot an email or think we should find a better piece, or because our ego saw something that got our competitive juices going. The steady, firm, engaged conductor can quickly become the hyperaware, judgmental, and stressed conductor.
In the yoga practice, when effort turns into gripping, the balancing agent is first, the breath. Tuning in to the breath teaches us to let go . . . not enough to fall, just enough to flow. When the body releases with the breath, the mind begins to focus more on the felt experience of the pose and less on the idealized product. The pose is still challenging and while you may not make the cover of your favorite yoga magazine (yet), finding the ease as you stay in the “now” makes a powerful impact on your feeling state, awareness, insight, and your long term growth.
In our conductor lives, it is much the same. Ease begins with a pause in the action, a real or metaphorical deep exhale, allowing a shift in focus. Moving from clenched-fist effort towards ease requires us to let go of ownership (while accepting responsibility), judgement (while retaining discernment), ego (while embracing passion), and the illusion of scarcity of time or resources (while recognizing limits). Like that yoga pose, our musical work is still challenging and our vision of what our choir can accomplish may not yet be a reality, but grasping too tightly to our goals or practices will only prevent growth and diminish the experience we want for ourselves and our ensemble. Our teaching, conducting, and leading need room to release and “breathe.”
Ease should not be confused with “easy” or with neglect, lethargy, or apathy. Shopping for only comfortable experiences in every rehearsal can mean singers are not challenged or that there is little structure to ground the learning. Ease requires its own kind of engagement, and balances effort to help the pieces of our experience fit together.
“Sukha does not mean ‘easy’ or even ‘comfortable,’ as we normally understand the terms—it means that everything is working together harmoniously.”
How can we harmoniously blend steady, firm, engaged and joyful, easeful, comfortable?
Know where you are on the effort/ease continuum and make adjustments regularly, before you burn out. Learn what pushes your buttons and avoid or reframe these experiences so you don’t find yourself seriously off balance, making it that much harder to recalibrate. Notice if you tackle every task as though it were an emergency. Practice an easeful approach to one thing you normally rush through or fret over. And if you find yourself lacking where you need to be steady or resolute, see what happens when you commit to stay with the challenge.
Teach your singers to apply effort and ease. Show them how to stand firm, grounding their feet as though rooted into the earth. Balance this with the spaciousness and ease that comes from breathing well, allowing the weight to shift naturally, freeing the knees from a locked position, and releasing tension in the upper body and face/jaw. Apply effort and ease to the vocal mechanism, to practice habits, and to interpretive choices you collectively make about the music. Substitute “engagement” for “effort” and “release” for “ease” if those create better mental images.
Lead from a viewpoint of mission and purpose rather than technique-driven effort. Mission and purpose allow us to work for excellence under a goal larger than technique, the next concert, or personal accolades. When we teach within a broader context of meaning, personal wellness, and relationships, we can more joyfully push our artistic edge, the place where we “shake but don’t break.”
In so many ways, it’s a both/and world. Effort and ease are at their best in balance and we are at our best when we embrace and blend both in our life and our work.
“The key image to hold in mind is one of “positive inertia,” where sthira and sukha work together to engender an enduring state of equipoise in all levels of being.”
Robert Svoboda and Scott Blossom
Dr. Ramona Wis is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and the author of The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium. Dr. Wis is a 500-hour CYT (Certified Yoga Teacher) with training in yoga history, philosophy, meditation, energetics, pranayama (breath work), anatomy, Sanskrit, and the teaching, sequencing, and adaptations of asana (posture-based) practice. Reach her at:
Chris Livanos, “ ‘How Come I’m Not Comfortable?’ The Meaning of Sukha” https://yogainternational.com/article/view/how-come-im-not-comfortable-the-meaning-of-sukha
Robert Svoboda and Scott Blossom, “Sthira and Sukha: Steadiness and Ease” https://yogainternational.com/article/view/sthira-and-sukha-steadiness-and-ease
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda.