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05 Aug 2020 - Aimée Kuntz

Tapas & ahimsa on the yoga mat

The discipline to practice yoga daily with the softness of nonviolence

 

Practicing yoga every day... to many this sounds like very disciplined, hard and tough work. Although a yoga practice requires mental discipline, it does not mean that it has to be applied in a harsh or stoic way. After all, your yoga practice is there to create more balance, clarity, compassion and most of all self-realization.

So how do you do that; practicing yoga every single day while keeping it therapeutic? Just as that discipline is important in the yoga path, there are more principles in the yoga philosophy that shed light on this.

 

Dedication and discipline through the niyama “tapas”

You may have heard of the eightfold path of yoga, which is described in the yoga sutra of Patanjali (the most important guideline in yoga). Yoga is much more than just practicing yoga postures (asana). For example, the yama and niyama are also part of this eightfold path.

The yama and niyama are principles recommended (in the yoga sutra) to apply consistently in your life. Not because you have to, but because they can support you and your life. Further, these yama and niyama are important keys to make the practice of yoga postures therapeutic.

One of these principles is the niyama “tapas”. I am not talking about those little Spanish appetizers. The yoga version of tapas is about dedication and discipline. Exactly what you need to stand on your yoga mat every single day. And ultimately to create concentration of your mind. A discipline that demands a lot of inner strength but also gives it back to you.

The reason we often take the word ‘discipline’ so hard is because in our society we are used to viewing it from perspectives that we are already familiar with. Perspectives such as a sports mentality, making career and wanting to be successful. Yoga, however, is about self-realization. 

While aiming at self-realization, we also want to take good care of our life force. By supporting your well-being in general with a therapeutic approach. And also the well-being of the rest of the universe. Assuming that it is easier to be yourself than anyone else, discipline from the perspective of self-realization is not meant to be so hard at all.

 

The yama and niyama principles that interrelate

The principle "tapas" does not stand alone. The yama and niyama are principles that are interrelated. Both between these principles and with the other parts of the eightfold path. Just by looking at one yoga principle through the lens of the other yoga principle, the real meaning becomes clearer. These filters show that the discipline in yoga is much less harsh than you might think if you look at “tapas” isolated from the rest of the yama and niyama.

 

Yoga postures (asana) practice with Ahimsa

The yama “ahimsa” shows that there is also a softness in this discipline. 

Ahimsa is known as non-violence. Not only non-violence towards others, but also towards yourself. You can also explain ahimsa as the opposite of violence by thinking of qualities such as compassion, peace and love. Or if you apply ahimsa directly to your asana (yoga postures) practice, it’s about therapeutic practice. A way to increase your self-healing ability. A form of self-care.

If you put this non-violence as a filter over ‘discipline’, aiming at preventing yoga injuries is one way to look at it. However, since I just cannot imagine that anyone would intentionally create an injury but they still happen a lot, we need to go to a more subtle level to find how this principle can help.

 

Less friction, more stability

The moment you force yourself, friction arises. And friction does not fall under non-violence or caring for one's well-being and life energy.

So the trick is to practice discipline without creating friction. This requires stability.

Besides that the principle of non-friction indirectly indicates the need for stability, even the few yoga sutra about asana practice also indicate this. Based on the yoga sutra of Patanjali 2.46, 2.47 and 2.48, the guideline for the practice of yoga postures is:

  • in a steady/stable and comfortable way;
  • with a calm effort (whereby our mind is absorbed in infinite consciousness);
  • as a result, we are better able to deal with the ups and downs in life (by transcending the pairs of opposites).

 

What creates stability differs from person to person and from moment to moment. Technique is hereby subordinate to the principles of yoga.

As a result, there is no single correct general technique that applies to everyone and always. Yes, we have many techniques available. I say many techniques on purpose: not just one technique. What ensures the correct alignment in a particular case is always in relation to the individual in a particular situation. And this is not so much about what it looks like for someone else, but about what gives more stability at that moment on the inside.

Where you have to put your feet and hands at a certain time, to find this stability, can vary from day to day. That is why it is important to feel what is happening in your body.

Some elements that can help to feel (and to turn more inward) are:

  • Breathing: Follow and feel your breathing. Let the breath support your movements. Like that an inhalation helps to create space and you can use this space on an exhalation.
  • Body intelligence: If you lift your foot (or hand) a few times, where does your body want to put it intuitively? This works especially well if you 1) breathe properly and 2) lift your foot up and down a few times in a row.
  • Drishti: Instead of bringing the focus of your eyes outwards, use a soft gaze to bring your focus more inwards (and bring your mind more to rest). Which point to focus on depends on the yoga posture. Focus points that are often used are, for example, the tip of your nose, the navel and the third eye. But also the thumbs (or thumbnails), feet, hands, looking up and to the left or right side are used.

 

In addition to physical stability, mental stability in yoga postures also helps. The moment you manage to create this stability, you will notice that there is a certain relaxation, even if your body is working hard. In other words #RelaxIntoAction.

 

Without judgment

Although the yama and niyama are sometimes compared to the Ten Commandments, the yama and niyama are not meant to be judged on. They are principles that yogis have found to be very effective. The yama and niyama also have many layers to discover. So you can continue to use these principles as a framework to constantly review your habits.

This is also the case in our yoga postures. Since what is needed for stability can vary from day to day, it is very important that we don’t have a judgement over what is most effective that day. After all, judging can also be seen as a form of violence. Are you able to use compassion and acceptance of yourself instead by choosing variations that create more stability for you? So that every time you stand on the yoga mat it actually helps you to practice again the next day.

 

Tapas for more nonviolence during the day

It also works the other way around. It’s also yoga if your tapas/discipline, which ensures that you practice your asana (almost) every day, contributes to non-violence and non-friction.

For example, the yoga postures also affect your emotions. Did you know that the word ‘emotion’ stands for energy in motion? If we don’t face and digest our emotions, we can store them in our physical bodies. The hips are for example an area where we store a lot of emotions. The combination of breath and movement in yoga postures makes it easier to process and release this energy.

If you are more relaxed and experience less frustration (or anger or perhaps even rage), it is easier to act from a place of non-violence for the rest of the day. By being more relaxed because you have more patience, compassion, respect, thoughtfulness, forgiveness, clarity and resilience to return to serenity, even if you encounter challenges. Or because you find it easier to stay positive and grateful. 

Because let’s be real, life will give you challenges, no matter how much yoga you practice. How you respond (instead of react) to things has a ripple effect, so that your non-violence can spread further in the world.

Ahimsa actually goes beyond just the passive lack of violence in your own actions. It's definitely also about helping each other actively. The better you take care of yourself through your asana practice, the more you have to give. Self-care and self-respect for what you and your body need are essential to be there for others as well.

 

Tapas with Ahimsa

If you want to practice yoga postures (almost) every day, your body needs a non-violent approach. An approach that balances activity (which creates vitality) with stability (for non-friction). In short, it helps to have an asana practice that not only makes it possible to be back on your yoga mat the next day, but it makes it even easier to do so.

Your physical energy level is an indication whether your yoga practice is currently at the correct intensity. By that I mean not so much your energy level before you practice, but rather after your yoga session. The intention is that your tapas creates energy; no exhaustion. Exhaustion after an asana session is a sign that you are working too hard, which has even been associated with chronic inflammation rather than growth (source: Eddie Stern, One Simple Thing).

In addition to your physical energy level, your willpower is also an indicator of non-friction (as part of mental stability). Do you have more or less willpower before or after an asana session?

 

Use your inner saboteur

Of course we all have thoughts sometimes that demotivate us to do our asana practice. If we let it determine our actions is up to ourselves. In other words, to not give our saboteur (yes ... we all have this one) the upper hand.

Personally, I always like to use the conditions that already exist to “level” up to something better. In this case by listening to what my inner saboteur indicates and adjusting my yoga series for that day (or the way I practice it) to it.

Do you feel too tired? Choose a serie that gives you energy. Are your muscles sore and tired? Go for a gentle practice to increase your blood circulation to release your discomfort. Do you feel like you don't you have any time? Before you go on social media, commit to a short yoga practice of only 10 minutes before you open your social media app, so that you use some social media time for your yoga practice instead... and end up with more energy than scrolling can give you anyway. Do your children ask for attention? Perhaps you can do some yoga together in a playful way. So use the information from your inner saboteur to structure your yoga session in order to feel better after your yoga session than before. For discipline with softness and attention for the situation. Yoga was originally also intended to be tailored to the individual and circumstances!

Finally, It can help to really consider what you "need" versus what you "want". You may want to do much deeper poses than you need. Or the other way around, maybe you want to move your body less than what would optimize your energy and health. So question yourself; what is your therapeutic goal and how do you adjust your yoga asana program to this?

 

Yoga therapeutic approach

When we talk about non-violence and non-friction in our asana practice, the main focus is often on injury prevention. And of course we want to prevent those! Yet, I like to make the side note that you can also practice yoga poses with injuries: in most cases you actually need it even more when you have an injury. Then it becomes your therapy. However, not all postures or variations will be equally suitable. So adjust your yoga practice to you and your circumstances. Whether you have injuries or not.

At the same time, this indicates exactly why tapas and ahimsa go together so well. To create real therapeutic value, you will need to practice consistently AND you have to listen to your body. So how fast do you want something to get better? Then make sure you do something that contributes to this every day. So tapas! Tapas with the principle of non-friction.

 

Energetically it can help not to see yourself as a victim of the injury. Another perception is that it provides an opportunity (even when it is extremely challenging) to learn and to change stubborn patterns (which actually did not help you anyway). Or to learn so much about it that you can even help other people with this knowledge.

Of course, the area of ​​the injury may still need rest (depending on the type of injury). Yet it is certainly worthwhile to see how you can better support that part of the body. After all, the parts of your body are connected to each other and do not function in isolation. What can you change in your habits and patterns to give the "vulnerable" area more support by using or strengthening other parts of your body?

 

Have you ever thought about how you create more mobility instead of just strength or flexibility? In other words, flexibility that is supported by strength in a good balance. Where you are just as strong as flexible and vice versa. Where increasing your strength or flexibility does not come at the expense of your mobility.

A therapeutic approach also works very well without acute injuries. Since your body is "nature" by definition, there is always something to work on. And if it is not your physical body, then it might be your mental body. I perceive a therapeutic approach as a pragmatic tool to create more awareness and for personal development.

Exactly by being aware of what you are currently working on. Instead of working on getting deeper into posture, you can work on strengthening a certain area, increasing blood circulation, releasing tension, improving concentration, self-confidence, stability, creating space, etc.

  • Purpose: what is your current purpose, what are you working on?
  • Feel: what does your mind-body indicate?
  • One breath at a time: what's the next logical step?

 

The long way is the fastest way

Still wanting to post that difficult yoga posture directly on Instagram? Of course we all know that yoga is not about that at all. Still… it’s very human to look for that instant gratification now and then. Just like by going for that yummie vegan chocolate bar. Whether it truly helps us seems of later concern. 

And even realizing that other yogis have worked for it for a long time (like two decades or so) doesn't always seem to be relevant. As if we wouldn't be good enough as a person if we cannot do something better than someone else.

Chances are that it’s not even really about being able to do that yoga posture, but about the emotions and thoughts that we don’t want to face if we cannot do it yet. Like:

"Does the yoga teacher think I'm lazy?"

Or “I should be able to do this by now” or “As a yoga teacher, it is expected of me to never take rest between postures or to always being able to ‘do’ all yoga postures perfectly, with a preference for the full expression (as if that is the definition of leading by example”!).

If we can put those kinds of thoughts aside and focus on what we really need at that moment, space will arise to create the next building block. That building block might be as tiny as a grain of sand and even not be visible. However, working with integrity will allow your body to adapt actually quicker in the long run.

In the end, finding stability over and over again and working from there creates a strong foundation that opens a lot of doors. When you build a house, you don't start with the roof either. In yoga postures you also work from the ground upwards.

In between, it can also feel like when you are renovating your house. Especially in the middle... as if it doesn't lead to anything. As if there is no end to it or just that you feel like being really done with all the mess you are facing. Luckily, yoga isn’t about the posture itself.

If you continue to practice daily, the total of all those tiny building blocks does make a difference. Much more than you can achieve by pushing yourself a few times far beyond your limits, since you don't have to cut off the process prematurely.

For example, say you change 1% every day. That seems so little. So little that you cannot be sure that you observe the difference per day. (Although the difference in attitude might be visible). But if you look at the difference in 1 year, 10 years or over the rest of your life, a lot changes clearly. And this with more focus, compassion, perseverance and a lot of patience. Characteristics that are so very welcome off the yoga mat and help you in real life.

 

What can you do to create more ahimsa in your tapas? 

 

Enjoy your habits today with love and light.

Namasté,

Aimée Kuntz

 

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