When I was pursuing the first level of the teacher’s training program, the person who inspired me the most was not a teacher but a fellow student, Alina. She would meditate in Sthitaprarthanasana or the standing prayer pose and I would wonder why she practiced this simple posture so often. I found it quite bizarre, yet fascinating because its not easy. It was only later that I learnt of the many fascinating aspects connected to it.
During the advance training program one of the teachers remarked on how Sthitaprarthanasana activates and balances the five elements in our bodies – earth, water, fire, air and ether or space in that order starting from our feet to our thoughts. The lesson was centered around other asanas and most students did not catch this message as the teacher said it casually and quickly with no further explanation. But that was my eureka moment. That one line stayed with me as I thought about Alina.
Our bodies are made up of 5 elements. Earth is everything solid, our skin and bones. As we become aware of the earth beneath out feet, we also become aware of our steadiness and our form, because that is what the earth element provides. When we clench or squeeze our muscles to correct our posture, we activate the water element in our bodies. Water, as per its qualities, cleanses us and lends movement, gives flow, and rules our muscles and circulation, aids reproduction and excretion. It is the most important element for life to exist and comprises 70% of our bodies and our planet. Moving up from the pelvic we arrive at the stomach which contains the third element.
The fire in our bellies is the third element and does more than give us ambition, drive, vigor or gut feelings. It is where our energy is born. Food is broken down in the digestive system with the help of fiery acids that are so strong they could dissolve metal. A candle will not burn in vacuum and similarly this fire needs the next element to exist. As we inhale, our chests expand and we are filled with the fourth element – air. Our body is oxygenated and we are further energized.
Steadiness of breath brings about steadiness of the mind which in turn steadies the body. Lastly, the space element rules our head. It is the most challenging element to maintain. Once the mind is steady we aim at creating space in our head to feel completely relaxed, comfortable and at bliss. It is not emptiness but a serene feeling, a tranquil state of being, a kind of rest and conservation of energy that prepares you to become more alert, active and sensitive. The five elements in balance creates a magnificent human being leading a fulfilled life.
Sthira Sukham Asanam is the only description given for asanas in the yoga sutras of sage Patanjali. It means Steady and Comfortable Posture. Sounds simple but believe me, it takes quite a while to achieve. Sthitaprarthanasana brings out the essence of this sutra. If you become aware of the elements, you will be able to achieve ‘Sthira Sukham Asanam’ in any posture. When we are standing, we are active. When we are standing still, we are even more active. Yoga is awareness and it is only when we are aware of what we are doing, are we truly practicing yoga.
I started practicing the standing prayer pose, concentrating on the elements that made up my body and the physical dimension around me. I realized that the elements are of course active in all yoga postures, in fact they are forever active but this particular pose enables you to become aware of them and balance them. If you are restless or lethargic, confused or just down in general, I’d suggest you stand up and observe. One of the elements may be out of balance.