What’s your speed limit?

1986_gmc_jimmy-pic-25336-640x480My first car was a 1985 GMC Jimmy, my dad’s old car, gifted to me for my 17th birthday. Think pick up truck turned passenger vehicle, with absolutely no bells and whistles. It was sort of first generation kind of SUV.

As perhaps everyone thinks somewhat fondly about that first vehicle they owned or drove, this car was great in some ways but totally terrible in far more ways than it was good.

First, the gas gauge didn’t really work. As soon as it read a half tank of gas, I had to fill it up because it might truly be a half tank or…. SURPRISE!…. it was almost empty. I tried tracking my miles once as a way to tell when I needed to get gas and got it completely wrong so I was nearly stranded. I had to flag down some teenage farm boys to help push me into a gas station. (I ended up with a date out of that incident but that’s another story for another time.)

Another ridiculous thing about this car was what happened when I tried to drive faster than 65. It would accelerate steadily, but once that speedometer hit 65, the whole car would start vibrating. I could feel the vibrations in my feet and in the steering wheel. To be fair, the car was so badly sound-proofed, it was kind of like driving in a tin can even at low speeds so I think that was part of it. But the vibrations at higher speeds were almost as if the car was saying, “Okay, I can go this fast but you are past the limit here. Go any faster and I will break into a million pieces.” At 60 MPH, we were steady and easeful. 65? Not so much.

This is exactly how I think of Patanjali’s recommendation from the Yoga Sutras about how to practice asana. In Sanskrit it is: “sthira sukham asanam”. In BKS Iyengar’s translation, the definitions for the words as as follows:

Sthira = firm, fixed, steadfast, steady, lasting

Sukham = happiness, delight, ease

Asanam = performance of postures, poses

As with all of the concepts in the Yoga Sutras, much easier to say than to do, right? When you think about the actual poses you practice, it’s a big part of the challenge of yoga to make steadiness and ease happen every time.

With the good old Jimmy, it was easy to tell when I’d crossed the line past the steady and easeful mark. I think an important part of asana practice is to determine our limits in the same way, to know the signs of when we’ve lost the steadiness and ease. Of course the postures build strength, increase flexibility and come with a whole host of other physical benefits. But I also see the practice of asana as a means to learn about our limits. The poses become our own speedometer.

When you hold a challenging pose past the limit, you can feel it in your body. Like the vibrating steering wheel of my old car once we got past 65 miles per hour.

Even aside from the physical cues like the achy joint or the inability to stay in a balance pose, Iyengar says of asana practice, “it should be done with a feeling of firmness, steadiness and endurance in the body; goodwill in the intelligence of the head, and awareness and delight in the intelligence of the heart.”

He’s saying finding the limits in our postures isn’t just about the physical things we experience. When we lose the goodwill, the awareness, the delight in the postures, those are all signs that we’ve moved to far away from the steadiness and ease in our poses.

So practice with steadiness and ease, my friends. Find your own speed limit. See you on the mat.