Strike a Pose: Drag as Shtirasukha

In The Heart of Yoga T.K.V. Desikachar explains how in every pose yogis aim to achieve shtirasukha, a combination of steady alertness (shthira) with comfort and lightness (sukha).

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 8.21.41 PMHe illustrates the idea with an image from Hindu mythology of Ananta, king of the serpents, carrying the whole universe on his head while providing a bed for the Lord Vishnu on his coiled body.

Ananta must be strong and steady to support the universe (shthira) but keep his body relaxed to serve as a comfortable bed for his lord (sukha) (53).

You can experience it in tree pose as you steady yourself by contracting your abdominals and hugging your leg muscles close the bone, while also softening the knee of your standing leg and maintaining a flexible poise that accepts and adapts to the gentle, inevitable wavering as you balance and breathe.

But as with everything yoga, the qualities we seek in asana aren’t only about asana, and the inner self practicing shtirasukha isn’t just a philosopher; she is also an everyday human seeking to maintain the shtira of an authentic life along with the sukha of self-love and acceptance.

Perhaps this is why my preferred model of shtirasukha is not actually Ananta, but Kim Chi, a divine contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Kim Chi at Wicked Witch of the West RPDRS8

In a moving article about this television show’s influence in and beyond the LGBTQ community, Atlantic writer Manuel Betancourt credits RuPaul Charles for illuminating drag as the art of self-love.

When Kim Chi stomps the runway in high heels, performing her anime-inspired Glamazon, the artist is embodying a self whose power and poise are every bit as demanding as the act of living one’s truth in the drag of the mundane world of bills and bigotry.

Desikachar suggests that yogis seeking shtirasukha begin by visualizing the perfect posture, getting a feel for it by imagining ourselves within it, steady and relaxed. Asana is practice; its aim is not perfection, its aim is being here, now, in the pose. We note instances of discomfort, of limitation–a distracted mind, a narrow range of motion–but we experience the fullness of what we can express in that moment.

What drag queens know better than most of us is how to perform an ideal self with grace and humor–to step into the illusion as a way to embrace and project an authenticity that others may not ordinarily see, and that they themselves may not see until they create it in the mirror. There’s a profound self-awareness to drag, an intimate knowledge of who you are and what you are making of yourself today, in this moment, in this mirror, on this stage. You hug in, stand tall, and release the breath of fire.

On Posing

Last March I stood on a boulder at the Cape of Good Hope: the sun was bright on my shoulders, the brisk waves of the south Atlantic ocean were breaking beneath me and as my heart and lungs expanded my limbs did too–my body and spirit were starting asana. Yoga for me is like dance–it’s training I’ve done for years and in profound encounters with nature I am moved to physical expression through asana in much the way that, as a little girl, I would twirl through the fields of rural New York. But an important part of my yoga is a commitment to asana as an inner practice, not a performance. More bluntly, it is about posing as posture versus posing as Posing.

So I stood on the rock, surrounded by friends with cameras who I knew would photograph me if I struck a beautiful pose, and I turned inward: I folded forward, then down into plank, giving myself a physical experience that would not be photographically interesting because I knew the moment I did something “pretty” I’d be distracted by the performance of it; I’d cheapen the moment. I nixed the once-in-a-lifetime Facebook shot on purpose. What’s unfortunate is that the pose I felt like doing, Camatkarasana, didn’t get expressed–my heart and limbs wanted it but I didn’t want an audience and more truthfully I think I was too worried people would think I was seeking attention. I didn’t want to be, or appear to be, a poser. So I resisted the pose. And I regret missing that moment. Perhaps it was meant to spark this process, this yoga, of self-examination: why am I so concerned about narcissism and narcissists and (ironically enough) about behaving like one that I would resist an authentic moment of self-expression?