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The word sukha is actually composed of two smaller words: su, meaning “good,” and kha. meaning “space” or “hole.” Originally, sukha meant “having a good axle hole”—in the days before shock absorbers, pneumatic tires, and paved roads, when horses provided the power for carts, the roundness and centeredness of the axle hole was crucial to a smooth ride. Later, the word assumed the meaning of “gentle, mild, comfortable, happy.” Nowadays, we might say of someone who possesses sukha that “his head’s in a good space.”
Sukha also signifies, in a philosophical context, the “effort to win future beatitude, piety, virtue.” This is essentially the same long-term goal as that of our yoga practice—after, of course, we tone our buttocks and improve our golf swing. Describing this effort as sukha might seem strange, though. Most beginners would admit, if pressed, that practice can at times feel more like duhkha, sukha’s evil twin, which originally meant “having a bad axle hole” and now translates as “unpleasant, difficult, painful, sorrowful.”
The term duhkha is frequently used in yoga to characterize the human condition. It’s so easy to feel that our lives are sorrowful for all sorts of reasons: Our health is poor, we don’t have enough money or friends, the Red Sox lost the World Series—the list is endless. But the yogis say that ultimately, all sorrow stems from one source, our misconception of who we truly are, which they call avidya, “not knowing” or “not seeing” our true Self. We believe we’re limited beings, in terms of time, space, and knowledge, which causes us enormous distress, whether conscious or unconscious. We don’t know or see clearly that we’re exactly the opposite—the eternal, unlimited, omniscient, joyful Self. In other words, at heart, we’re all sukha; the end of sorrow comes from the removal of the not-knowing and from reveling in our authentic identity.
But must the process of ending sorrow be sorrowful itself? If our yoga practice sheds light on difficulties and obstacles, does it have to feel like duhkha? What about the idea that our effort toward happiness can itself make us happy? Maybe instead of focusing on the sorrow of our lives and how that sorrow often seems amplified by our yoga practice, we can keep in mind that sukha is continually as close to us as our own Self.
Richard Rosen, who teaches in Oakland and Berkeley, California, has been writing for Yoga Journal since the 1970s.