Sthira and Sukha in Yoga, Life and Love
Stretching but Honoring your Limits
I can’t count how many times in a yoga class I’ve heard the sage advice of the instructor to practice sthira and sukha or to reach but, honor your limits. It occurred to me on my mat this morning how wise the practice of balancing sthira (effort/steadiness) and sukha (ease) is for many other areas of our lives as well. As I reflect back over the years, I realize how many facets of life I stretched beyond my limits and broke parts of myself. Yes, I mended and in many cases came back stronger, but I don’t think the breaking was necessary for the strengthening along the journey.
Balancing Sthira and Sukha in Yoga:
I’d venture to say that many, if not most of us, who have practiced yoga for a period of time are very familiar with this concept as a part of their yoga journey. Early on I was so eager to push my body hard, thinking that if I stretched just a bit further I could surely get my body to conform to the picture perfect shapes I saw in yoga magazines. This competition with myself and others in the room continued for years and frustratingly I even had to continue to work on this throughout my yoga teacher training and beyond. Despite the knowledge imparted to me by my wise teachers, I still persisted to push my body too far too fast. The injuries were minor at that time. I’d back off and rest the body parts I’d over-worked and within a few days or weeks, I’d be back at it pushing hard again.
We so often talk about balance in yoga - physical balancing postures, balancing the yin and the yang portions of ourselves, the balance between mind and body and spirit. So often my teacher would guide us to try to find that sweetness in our practice that was this balance of sthira and sukha. And as my practiced matured, I gradually began to find the beauty of this concept. I too now encourage my students to find the balance of this place, this sweet spot between coaxing your body to stretch and relaxing into the sweetness of the pose. It seems counterintuitive, but if you allow your muscles to relax a bit and sink into relaxation while you are stretching, you may find that your resulting stretch is easier, deeper, and more satisfying.
Balancing Sthira and Sukha in Life:
As I pondered these concepts on my mat this morning, I thought back about the chapter of my life in the corporate world that I recently left. To grow in your career, to get challenging projects and to be promoted it is necessary to stretch beyond where you currently find yourself. You must continue to educate yourself and take on responsibilities that are at first quite challenging. Then you grow into this role and at some point move up the ladder, stretch further and grow further. This is all healthy and rewarding if you honor your limits and take good care of yourself along the way.
I personally disregarded the little voice in my head warning me that I needed more balance, more ease in my life. I worked hard, long hours. Too hard. Too long. And to be completely honest, it eventually took a heavy toll on my body. I wasn’t wise enough to make sure that when I was working so hard, I still took care of my body. I’d skip work outs when I got super busy. And eventually weeks or more would fly by fast without any exercise. My diet would change from what was quite healthy to what was quick and easy.
I told myself this was what was expected of my position and that this was my responsibility, but in actuality my employer didn’t ask this of me. I was given responsibility over a group of individuals and a portion of the responsibilities of that corporation. And I was given much latitude in how to get the job done. I was the one that didn’t ask for more help when needed or figure out a way to do things more efficiently before a problem arose. And I allowed this pattern of overworking for years. I would work until I would become sick or burnt out, then eventually give myself a short break to recover enough to pick the pace back up again.
I now realize years later the true cost of these patterns over the long haul. It is only now with a lack of stress, that I even realize the stress I had subjected my body to for so long. I am healing, but it likely will take months to reverse the damage I did by over-stretching myself - by not honoring my limits.
Balancing Sthira and Sukha in Love:
Likewise, years ago I overstretched in love. I was young and naive and thought that love could cure all the problems in my first marriage. I gave it my all and hung on much longer that I probably should have. By the time I finally left, not only was my heart broken and my body suffering the toll of the stress, but it took a little piece of my soul as well. This took years to heal completely.
To find the joy possible in a mature loving relationship, it is necessary to stretch yourself - to be vulnerable and open. Yet it is important to recognize when this extension of yourself becomes a detriment to you, whether it is because the love and care is not equally balanced in the relationship or that you are always the one giving and not being respected and cared for in return.
With respect to love, this not only applies to our significant other, but to our children, our parents, friends and other loved ones as well. Often as caregivers, we give, give, give, until there is no time and no energy left for ourselves. We become depleted inside and out. We stretch ourselves too thin.
By not honoring our limits with our loved ones, we risk not only hurting ourselves over time, but we short change the people we love the most as well. We lose our ability to be spontaneous, creative and fun loving. We lose the ability to live in such a way that encourages smiles, laughter and joy in those we share this beautiful life with. Finding time to nurture and care for yourself is not a selfish practice. In truth, it is exactly the opposite. It leaves you restored and with more energy and love to share with all the amazing people that walk alongside you.
How do we learn to stop before we are tired, burned out & lacking?
Practicing Sthira and Sukha in Exercise:
Learning to stretch but honor your limits when you exercise and push your body, is typically a matter of learning to drop your ego and focus on what is good for you. It is a practice of being mindful when you are exercising - paying attention to all the little signs your body is giving you by being present and fully listening to your body while you are working out. You still will want to push yourself enough to get the benefit of working out, but listen and learn where that limit is so that you don’t overdo it and risk injury. Since your body is ever changing depending on the environment, how much sleep you had, previous work-outs etc., you need to practice mindfulness by listening to the body each and every time you exercise. It’s those little cues, like not being able to catch your breath, a little pain, exhaustion. We need to discern if it is our mind trying to encourage us to quit because it’s simply hard or whether the body is sending warning signals. This comes with an intention to listen closely and often.
Practicing Sthira and Sukha in Life & Love:
In other areas of life this balance between effort and ease can be a little trickier. Unless you have a regular practice of checking in with yourself in some way such as a daily meditation practice, or through journaling, you may not even notice that you’ve ignored your limits until you have gone beyond them. Taken to the extreme, it can be easy to even ignore them so long that you become accustomed to this way of living. You don’t even realize that you are regularly and daily stretching yourself too thin.
To ask yourself the question of if this pertains to you, you almost need to get yourself out of the environment where you are overdoing it. From time to time it is truly beneficial to figure out a way to allow yourself a long weekend at a minimum. Go on a retreat. Or at the very least, take a day off and get outdoors by yourself for awhile. Check in with yourself and ask yourself this question of how you are balancing sthira and suhka for all facets of your life. Are you stretching yourself? Are you putting forth enough effort in this area of your life? Stretching is good. It will keep you healthy and growing. Then ask if you are over-stretching yourself in each of these areas as well. If you don’t already have plans on your calendar for doing this, set some tentative dates on the calendar to make sure that you do so.
You are important. You are worthy of receiving care, nurturing and love from yourself. Taking time to question balance in all areas of your life in this way may be one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself and those you love. xoxo Julie