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Inspiring health and happiness in body, mind and spirit

Yoga for Beginners: Sukhasana

September 21, 2010
Think back to a time when you felt blissfully happy from head to toe. How would you describe the sensations that rippled through you? My bet is that during these periods you felt utterly grounded and at ease in the present moment. At the same time, my guess is that you felt buoyant, uplifted and awake to the vast possibilities of life around you.

Ideally every yoga posture embodies these dual qualities of steadiness and vitality, of both comfort in the here-and-now and openness to the transformation that lies ahead. Together these feelings lessen our sense of isolation, moving us toward deeper ease and accord both within ourselves and with those around us.

The classic seated posture Sukhasana (Pose of Happiness) offers us the possibility of settling with comfort and acceptance into the present moment while opening us with enthusiasm toward life around us. This pose releases the hips, strengthens core postural muscles, and soothes frantic nerves. In the process it offers an introduction to quiet and more meditative states of mind. Practiced regularly, Sukhasana opens a doorway toward deepening ease, contentment and delight.

To begin, fold a thick blanket into a firm, steady support that is about six inches high. Position yourself on the edge of this bolster with your sitting bones on the blanket and legs outstretched in front of you on the floor. Fold the legs in toward your body, separating the knees, crossing the shins and slipping each foot beneath the opposite knee.

STEADY FOUNDATION
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 when you look down and see a triangle – the two shins together form one edge and each thighbone creates another. Don’t confuse this position with that of other classic seated postures where the ankles are tucked in close to the sitting bones. In Sukhasana, there should be a comfortable gap between the feet and the pelvis.

Let’s build a steady, balanced foundation for the pose. In the beginning, tight muscles and lazy habits may leave you tucking your lower pelvis and settling onto your tailbone. This, in turn, will cause the lower back to round, the heart to collapse, and the head to drop forward into a depressed, couch-potato slump. There’s nothing comfortable or uplifting about this posture!

Instead of sitting like a sad dog with its tail tucked between its legs, rest on the sitting bones a few inches in front of the tailbone. Place your hands on the blanket on either side of you, press firmly downward to straighten the arms, lift the pelvis off the blanket and gently untuck the base of your tail toward the earth behind you. Release your arms to settle down onto your sitting bones. Don’t overarch your back and poke your ribs forward like an enthusiastic gymnast, but do make sure you’re not sagging in the lower back.

Notice how as you settle onto your sitting bones instead of your tail, your back waistband is drawn gently inward and upward, your belly grows spacious, your heart grows light, and your breath deepens. To be clear about this action, you might like to alternate a few times between the two ways of sitting – the tired, tail-tucked version and the lively, uplifted one. Do you notice how such a simple shift in your body can change your mood and your mind?

NEUTRAL SPINE
If your experience is anything like mine, when you tuck your tail and collapse your spine a sense of dullness and inertia settles in and the world begins to look a little gray. And when you situate yourself firmly on your base so that the spine can assume a more neutral posture, the mind lightens, the clouds part and the sky returns to blue. Sitting in this way demands a little more energy and enthusiasm, but the rewards are well worth the effort.

Now return to the legs, the roots of Sukhasana. Shift the weight toward your right side and use your hands to externally rotate the left thigh, turning the inside seam of your top leg upward toward the sky. Opening the thighs in this way will help release reluctant hip muscles while relieving strain on the knees, allowing them to settle more freely toward the ground. Repeat this action on the second side.

If after making this adjustment your knees remain higher than the top rim of your pelvis, come out of the posture, increase the height of your blankets to create a thicker throne for your hips, and settle into Sukhasana again. If this still doesn’t remedy the problem, sit in a chair instead (see Photo Two). Finding stability and steadiness in the pose is more important in the beginning than forming the classic shape, and you will feel happier and more buoyant if you’re wise enough to employ all the props you need.

Once you’ve found your firm foundation, invite the lower half of your body from the pelvis downward to settle into the ground with a big sigh of relief. Let gravity pull both the pubic bone at the front of the pelvis and the tailbone at the back gently toward the earth. At the same time, relax the hips, legs, knees and ankles. Let everything heavy about you fall like rainwater into the body’s base. This action will foster feelings of earthiness and surrender, dropping you into a more soulful and contented acceptance of the present moment.

SPACIOUSNESS AND JOY
This settling may take some time, but with practice you will find it nurturing a delightful sense of presence and comfort in the world. And the more profoundly you are able to settle downward, the more you will invite a paradoxical buoyancy to emerge from within. It’s as if the rooting action through the base invites lightness to rebound up through you, fostering spaciousness and joy in the upper half of the body. Raindrops fall downward from the brain into the pelvis, and then summer vines spiral upward through the spine toward the sun.

To encourage this feeling, invite a sense of lightness to percolate upward from your deep belly. Imagine the back of the abdomen slipping inward toward the spine and upward toward the heart. This is a gentle action rather than an aggressive one, so resist the tendency to suck in the gut or harden the belly. As you do this, invite the ribs and heart to ascend as well.

As the belly and ribs lighten, so, too, will the heart and head. Be full across the top chest, spreading the collarbones as if you were sporting a medallion at your breastbone that you wanted to shine brightly toward those around you. At the same time, let the upper arm bones be heavy to help release the shoulders downward.

Rest your hands comfortably on the thighs with your fingers uncramped and easy. Keep the elbows in line with the shoulders so the upper arm bones remain perpendicular to the floor. If you’re looking for a little more earthiness in the pose, turn your palms downward. If you’re seeking brightness, try turning the palms upward instead.

If your spine is in healthy alignment, with your sitting bones settling into the blanket and your sternum bone rising upward toward the sky, it is likely that your head will be positioned directly over the shoulders instead of slipping lazily forward. If this isn’t the case for you, reassess the situation.

QUIET BODY AND EASY HEART
Invite a more profound sense of fullness through the heart, relax the shoulders toward the hips, and imagine a magnet in the crown of your head being pulled upward toward a magnet in the sky. As you do this the chin will be gently drawn inward, the back of the neck will lengthen, and the head will be pulled in line with the spine. Keep the head in a neutral position, looking forward with quiet and receptive eyes. Rest here for several breaths, enjoying the opportunity to settle into the pose with a quiet body and easy heart.

Before exploring Sukhasana further, change the fold of the legs. Stretch them out in front of you and then recross them with the shin that previously was closer to your pelvis now farther away. This means that if you folded your right shin inward first before, you now fold the left shin inward first instead.

Balance yourself evenly on the edge of the blanket, taking care to situate yourself on your sitting bones. Close your eyes and for a few breaths return to that deep and settled feeling in your hips and legs. Notice how this nurtures a sense of comfort and steadiness in the body – as if you’ve brought your awareness back down to earth and into the present moment.

After several breaths, shift your focus to the lightness and freedom in the upper half of the body – as if the heart had wings that would waft you right off the ground if you weren’t so well rooted at your base. Soften the boundaries of the body, letting your heart’s vitality percolate outward and upward. Enjoy the sense of openness and possibility this evokes.

PRACTICING HAPPINESS
Now draw your awareness to your breath. Each time you breathe in, send a wave of energy down your spine, deep into your hips, and perhaps even far into the earth beneath you. With each exhalation, reverse this current of energy, inviting it to rise upward through your spine into the sky above. Enjoy the subtle rippling action that accompanies this action as you focus your attention in this way.

Now practice happiness. Let a secret smile radiate internally from your core outward through your skin. Encourage feelings of spaciousness and openness to well up from deep within. Enjoy the sweetness and ease this gentle enthusiasm evokes.

Relish this opportunity to sit quietly, soften the mind, and surrender to the passing sensations of life - the warmth or coolness of the air around you, the gentle massage of the breath as it pours into and out of you, the ability to rest your mind in the fullness of the present moment.

The rewards of this earthy presence and lightness of spirit will multiply exponentially if you let these feelings waft outward beyond you. Like the sun’s rays radiating outward in all directions, your happiness may serve as a balm and delight not just for yourself, but for everyone around you, too.

*****

This article was originally published in Yoga Journal (July 2004)