The Balancing Act

PYS 2.46 sthira-sukham-āsanam

Meaning: The connection to the earth or seat should be steady and happy.

-Interpretation by Austin Sanderson



The English word balance comes from the Latin bilanx; its roots are bis (two or twice) and lanx (scale pans). Thus the bilanx is what we call a scale, its most familiar form being in the hands of Lady Justice as she tries blindly to find balance and equilibrium. The word balance can be a noun or a verb: as a noun, Mary tries to keep a balance between her work time and personal time; as a verb, Richard balances while standing on one foot. Whether in its noun or verb form, most of us find it hard to balance. Why is it so hard to balance both in our daily lives and physically, on our yoga mat?

As Master Patanjali tells us in chapter two of the Yoga Sutras, sthira-sukham-āsanam: sthira (steady), sukham (joyful,) asana (seat), three simple words. Asana is the seat of balance; a seat is a deep-rooted connection that gives a foundation for balancing, whether on one foot or in an interaction with the world around us. If the seat is not steady and joyful, then the connection will be unstable. According to Patanjali, our personal energetics when trying to achieve a balanced seat must have a single objective and be optimistic.

Balancing our lives between the demands of work, family, and personal self-care (such as making time for a daily yoga practice) truly requires the single-mindedness of sthira and the optimism of sukham. If the mind is unfocused at work, we do not get our project finished efficiently, and we may have to give up family or self-care time. If our attitude toward anything that takes time from one thing or the other is negative and lacks joy, the whole process of balancing our lives can become one of resentment and anger over our situation.

When it comes to physically balancing in our bodies, a sharp mind helps us balance and keeps us from falling. “We need careful planning of our movements, decision making, reaction time, and attention,” says Brad Manor, PhD, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Mobility and Falls Program at Hebrew Senior Life of Boston. He notes, “Staying mentally active is very important to avoiding falls.” In other words, even in an asana like Vrikshasana (tree seat), the mind’s state of steady joyfulness is an important factor in maintaining balance.

How does the body find balance while in an asana? The inner ear, which senses head motions, is an important part of the intricate system of balance. If we start to lose the ear’s ability to hear, we may lose our ability to maintain balance. The body’s somatosensory system, which relays the feeling of the ground beneath our feet when we are standing or trying to balance, is also a key part of balancing. This is why yoga asana is traditionally performed barefoot, to strengthen the tactile sensitivity between the feet (seat) and the earth (the grounding element of the seat). This forms a true symbiotic relationship between the yoga practitioner and the earth. And of course vision can also help or hinder us in our ability to balance: it’s been said, “Where your eyes go, your body and mind will follow.” This is why the gaze (drishti) is so important in yoga asana. If we are looking at people in a yoga class who themselves are out of balance, more than likely it will cause us to get out of balance. Look at a spot that is not moving to help find physical and mental steadiness. The brain takes in all this information, plans our movements, and carries them out. Balancing is a complex system. As we get older, mental cognition becomes a big part of being able to balance. Keeping the mind mentally active and healthy helps us to maintain physical, emotional, and spiritual balance.

Our self-esteem is another key factor in finding balance in the body. Often in asana class, as soon as a standing balance asana is called out, students run to the wall. Students of all ages do this. The “I can’t balance” mindset of running to the wall as a crutch causes a disconnection from the earth, a disconnection from breath and movement, and a rush to “get into the asana” because of a self-defeating approach to balancing. By slowing down and focusing on the asana in the middle of the room, we may create a deeper connection to the seat of balance. If muscular strength and stability need to be developed, we will never achieve that by leaning against the wall in an attempt to approximate balancing. The wall can be a wonderful tool or prop to help us understand balancing on a deeper level, but if the wall becomes a crutch to flop against and hold up the body’s weight, no strength and stability are gained.

Balancing asanas offer a yogi an amazing opportunity to explore the body and the mind, building strength and stability in the body and at the same time calmness and steadiness in the mind: this a true balancing.

~ Austin Sanderson Urban Sadhu Yoga