Yogi Assignment: Tapas and the Benefits of Discipline

This morning I woke up at 5 AM, over two hours before sunrise. Before 6 AM I was meditating and before the sun peaked over the clouds I was already in Downward Facing Dog. It may surprise you to hear that I’m not a morning person. Over twenty years of yoga practice and I still find it challenging to wake up before the sunrise. My natural body clock wants to sleep in for a good thirty to forty minutes after the sun has risen. But, years of practice and a good dose of discipline have taught me about the benefits of stretching far beyond my comfort zone, both in practice and in life.

Traditionally yoga practice is a spiritual journey that aims to cleanse the body and mind of old and destructive habit patterns. These patterns are called “samskaras” in Sanskrit and we all have them. Since samskaras are the most manifested embodiments of our thoughts and personality we are very identified with them and it often causes us great emotional turmoil to change them. There is a powerful inertia that drives the samskara cycle and, if left unchecked, the pattern will continue largely driven by unconscious motivating forces. Some samskaras are said to be benign, meaning that they do not generate further suffering. But the majority of the ones that govern our lives are in fact not beneficial to our liberation and will ultimately lead to more suffering. Working with the samskaras is like performing a deep operation of the mind. It isn’t something that can be undertaken in a haphazard manner. Much to the opposite, restructuring the habit pattern of the mind and laying the foundation for a life of inner peace is a devoted, disciplined practice that will require your full undivided attention.

Calls for discipline can be unpopular, and even sometimes thought of as negative. In our free-thinking, self-invented culture many people revile at the idea of following the rules. Well, in the yoga practice there is a long history of the need for a disciplined approach to spiritual practice. Called Tapas in Sanskrit, the need for discipline is discussed in all traditional forms of yoga practice. Sometimes Tapas can be translated as austerities, which can be even more intimidating. A softer translation comes from Swami Satchidananda where Tapas is defined as the acceptance of those pains that lead to purification. I love this definition because some overzealous students hear discipline and use it as an excuse to practice with harshness and severity, and even turn the practice into a kind of penance. But, yoga is rooted in the path of balance and extreme hardship is simply not recommended. Discipline in the yoga practice actually comes from love.

Here’s a real-world way that discipline works in the yoga practice to achieve spiritual results. My alarm goes off at 5 AM. The “old” me wants to stay in bed and snuggle. The “new” me has to force myself a little to roll out of bed. There is so much momentum around the pattern of staying in bed. My entire inner dialogue speaks a seductive language that entices me to sleep in. “You deserve rest” it says. “Just hit snooze for five minutes” it continues. “It’s way to early— the sun isn’t even out yet!” it enthusiastically states. I can choose to listen to the inner voice of my old patterning or I can choose to get up out of bed and start my spiritual practice. It isn’t easy to chart out a new course. It requires effort, willpower and determination. But, as I sit on my meditation cushion and my mind quiets, in those pre-dawn hours I feel a sense of peace and awarenes. This dawn, the awakening of inner light, fills me up so much so that it makes it all worth the effort.

My teacher R. Sharath Jois likes to say that every practice should contain at least some element of difficulty. If practice is too easy, the idea is that it won’t be able to teach you about the depths of yourself. The mountain of yoga is the truly the highest peak of human consciousness. In some sense it should be a little hard and present challenges that mirror the challenges of life. The yogi is a seeker of truth and the journey to the deepest truth demands strength, commitment and resolution from would-be aspirants. Tapas is there to tell you that it is ok that your first attempt at a difficult arm balance is not a success. Tapas encourages you to try again, one more time or one thousand more times, to build the strength and learn the lesson your practice is trying to teach you. If you normally back away from hardship, Tapas is there to encourage you to rise up and meet hardship with a fierce love. Tapas is one of the most important tests along the spiritual path of yoga. Tapas teaches you a spiritual paradigm that changes your response to adversity and struggle. By learning how to face those pains that lead to purification (not injury!), you will learn how to lean in to the scary places in your life. So, if your yoga practice is too comfortable, then you might benefit from challenging yourself just a little. There are many forms of tapas you might choose from. Discipline is needed every single time that yoga asks you to change your life. And truly, life transformation is where yoga has the power to be a revolution and change your world.

Yoga has been my life for over twenty years and the Tapas of the practice has changed nearly every aspect of my life. First, you already know that yoga changed the time I wake up in the morning. While I still play hooky sometimes and sleep in (I’m human after all), I generally wake up much earlier than I did before I started yoga. That necessarily means that I go to bed much earlier as well. Like a domino-effect, going to bed early and rising early puts a serious dent in what types of parties and social interactions are pleasurable in the late evenings (read: no more late night parties for me). Second, yoga changed my daily rituals. The only thing I did every day before yoga was brush my teeth. Twenty years ago I accepted the six-day-a-week demand of Ashtanga Yoga and I am here today writing this article because to a large degree I haven’t wavered. There are many days when my practice isn’t the full two hour sweat fest that Ashtanga Yoga is known for. Some days my practice is just five minutes long and comprised of only the Sun Salutations. But, my Tapas means that I get on my mat with great frequency. This daily discipline has become my spiritual ritual of mental and physical purification. Third, yoga changed my diet. Within the first few months of committing to a regular yoga practice I simply felt the need to adjust my diet. Stemming from the moral and ethical commitment to ahimsa, I went fully plant-based. There are so many more changes that the discipline of yoga has effected in my life, but I’ll leave you with one last important aspect of Tapas. Once I learned how to build discipline on the mat, I learned to be disciplined off the mat as well. I’ve written four books and am working on my fifth. I co-founded a yoga center, Miami Life Center, and founded an online channel for yoga, Omstars. I travel and teach yoga all over the world. This has been no mere act of luck, while surely I have been both blessed, privileged and lucky. I applied the same disciplined approach to life that I applied to my body when learning to jump through, jump back, lift up in inversions and other asanas. If I failed once, twice or one thousand times, I did not waver. Each time I picked myself back up and tried again. Twenty years later, there are some dreams that I’m still working on and there are certainly many poses that I’m still working on. With the power of Tapas, I am faithful that all is coming in its due course of time.

This week’s Yogi Assignment is Tapas, Discipline. I’d like you to introduce one challenging aspect to your spiritual practice this week. As you do, be sure that your Tapas is rooted in love and not punishment. With the same kind heart that you would feel as you discipline your child, speak to yourself of the benefits of discipline. Below are some options for how you might apply Tapas to your practice this week. Choose one or all. And, of course, feel welcome to explore other areas of discipline. If you feel inspired to share your progress on this week’s #YogiAssignment on social media, I’d love to see how it’s going. But also feel welcome to make this a private, introspective journey. You might find that journaling about your experience of Tapas helps you process your relationship to discipline.

Early Morning Practice—

Commit to waking up before dawn and getting on your mat as soon as possible. Avoid sending emails or logging on to social media before you practice. The early morning practice capitalizes on the relatively quiet state of mind that is predominant directly after waking up. By starting your practice in this calm space you will be able to work very deeply in the mind. Plus, if you get your practice in before “life” starts, then you will be set up for the whole day in the paradigm of spiritually oriented thinking. Your day will flow from a place of peace and you won’t ever get “too busy” to practice.

2. Yogi Food—

Changing food habits is never fun. You often meet cultural and social resistance, not to mention desire for past pleasure. Just for this week, try giving up a food item that you feel particularly attached to and is an impediment to practice. For example, if you always have a glass or two of wine in the evenings, challenge yourself to give that up for a week. See who you are without your samskara of wine. It won’t be easy. In fact, it will probably be confronting. But, just try it out for one week and see how you react in both positive and negative ways.

3. Practice—

Commit to getting on your mat for at least five minutes at least six days this week. It will be easier if you practice at around the same time every day. Just as we brush our teeth first thing in the morning and last thing at night, practice is best done when you make a ritual out of it and do it at the same time every day.

4. Disciplined Thinking—

The yoga practice gives you a view into the inner world. There, in the space between your breaths, you will often find your repetitive thoughts. Once you see those thoughts on your yoga mat, you will probably also see them in your life. As an act of Tapas this week, be watchful over your thoughts both on and off the mat. If you notice yourself thinking negative thoughts about yourself like “I feel fat” “I’m too old” “I’m ugly”, see if you can turn the thought around. Using your spiritual strength, see if you can find a positive thought to think about yourself instead. This type of work is the hardest and requires the most discipline. But if you succeed at the other aspects of Tapas you will develop the grit it takes to retrain the habit pattern of the mind. Eventually, your mind and heart will be filled with kind, peaceful, loving thoughts about yourself and your whole world.

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