SUKHASANA (pronounced sue-KAH-suh-nuh)
Sukhasana is probably one of the easiest asanas around, and it doesn’t take a yoga genius to figure out why it’s so named. Sukha is composed of two smaller words, su, meaning “good,” and kha, meaning “space.” Originally sukha literally meant “having a good axle hole.” It’s plain that, in the days before shock absorbers, pneumatic tires, and paved roads, when horses provided the motive power for a cart or chariot, the roundness and centeredness of the axle hole was crucial to a smooth ride. Later on the word assumed the meaning of “agreeable, gentle, mild, comfortable, happy.” I suppose nowadays we’d say of someone who’s sukha that “his head is in a good space.”
If we dig a little deeper into the Sanskrit dictionary, we’ll find that sukha also signifies, in a philosophical context, the “effort to win future beatitude, piety, virtue” (interestingly, beatitude also stems from a word that means “happy”). This is essentially the same long-term goal as our yoga practice, after of course we flatten our buttocks and improve our golf swing. Describing this effort as sukha though might seem strange; most beginners would admit, if pressed, that their practice is duhkha, sukha’s evil twin, which means, naturally enough, “having a bad axle hole”–much like my 20-year-old Toyota–and so “uneasy, uncomfortable, unpleasant, difficult, painful, sorrowful.”
Duhkha is a word frequently used in yoga to characterize the human condition. We imagine that our lives are sorrowful for all sorts of apparently obvious reasons: we don’t have enough money or friends, our health is poor, the Yankees lost the World Series, the list is endless. But the yogis say that ultimately all sorrow stems from one source, our misapprehension of who we truly are, which they call avidya, “not-knowing” or “not-seeing.” To cite Patanjali (see Yoga Sutra 2.5), we believe we’re limited beings, in terms of time, space, and knowledge, which causes us enormous distress, whether conscious or unconscious. In fact, we don’t “know” or “see” clearly that we’re exactly the opposite, the eternal, unlimited, omniscient, and so joyful Self; in other words, we’re all at heart sukha. Beatitude in yoga, and the consequent end of all sorrow, is the resolution of this not-knowing in the revelation of our authentic identity.
But must the process of ending sorrow itself be sorrowful? It’s not uncommon to hear our practice portrayed in terms of an arduous battle between two opposing forces, one binding us in thrall to avidya, the other seeking to liberate us from our self-delusions. But what about the idea we found embedded in the definition of sukha that our effort toward happiness can itself make us happy? Maybe instead of focusing on the sorrow of our lives and how that sorrow seems amplified by our practice, we can instead keep always in mind the goal, sukha, which is as close to us as our own Self.
Assume a familiar asana, one that’s a litte more duhkha than sukha for you. Consciously investigate whatever duhkha you feel for a few breaths. Is there any way in which you might contribute to your own discomfort? Then back out of the position slightly or prop yourself (e.g. with a block or chair); do what you can to transform the duhkha into sukha. How do you feel now? Can you see any way in which you might add an element of sukha to your practice?
1. Fold a thick blanket or two into a firm support at least four to six inches high. Sit with your topmost back thighs right on one of the firm folded edges, so that you’re sitting more heavily on the thighs than you are your sitting bones. Stretch your legs out in front of your torso on the floor in Staff Pose (dandasana).
2. Bend your knees and fold the legs in toward your torso. As you do, cross your shins and slip each foot beneath the opposite knee. If you practice this pose regularly, be sure to alternate the cross of your legs day by day. A good rule of thumb (or toe?): on even-numbered days, cross the right shin in front of the left, on odd-numbered days, do the opposite.
3. Relax the feet so their outer edges rest comfortably on the floor and the inner arches settle just below the opposite shin. You'll know you have the basic leg fold of sukhasana if your legs form a pair of stacked triangles. Don't confuse this position with that of other classic seated postures in which the ankles are tucked in close to the sitting bones. In sukhasana, there should be a comfortable gap between the heels and pelvis.
4. As always, you should ideally sit with your pelvis in a relatively neutral position. To help find this, rock back and forth on your sit bones, moving back on an exhale, forward on an inhale. At first exaggerate the movement, then gradually slow it down until you come to a stop where you feel just a little toward the front of the sit bones. Check that your pubic bone and tail bone are about equi-distant from the floor.
5. Be sure never to push down on your knees. Let your inner groins release, and the knees, like Mary’s little lamb, will follow. Imagine lengthening your tail bone down into the Earth, all the way to the planet’s core, 3900 miles away. Firm your shoulder blades against your back, and lift the TOP of the sternum. Be sure not to push the bottom of the bone forward and jut your ribs. Let the base of the skull release away from the back of your neck, so your head feels as if it’s floating on the atlas.
6. Either stack your hands in your lap, palms up, or lay your hands on your knees, palms down. With the palms up, there’s a feeling of lift to the torso, palms down helps with grounding the pelvis.
7. If your feet begin to tingle, be sure to stretch your legs forward and bounce them up and down on the floor a bit. Never try to sit through tingling feet or hands.
Calms the brain
Stretches the knees and ankles
Strengthens the back
CONTRAINDICATIONS/CAUTIONS: Knee injury
PREPARATION: Virasana, Baddha Konasana