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Yogi Assignment: Tap Into the Benefits of Tapas

Sticking to something you set out to do—especially when it challenges your go-to habits—takes discipline. Here are four ways to strengthen your determination by the end of this week.

Learn four ways to strengthen your discipline this week.

This morning I woke up at 5 a.m., more than two hours before sunrise. Before 6 a.m. I was meditating, and before the sun peaked over the clouds I was already in Downward Facing Dog.

Considering this typical morning ritual of mine, it may surprise you to hear that I’m not a morning person. Over 20 years of yoga practice and I still find it challenging to wake up before the sun. My natural body clock wants to sleep in for a good 30 to 40 minutes after the sun has risen. But, years of practice and a good dose of discipline have taught me about the benefits of stretching beyond my comfort zone, both in practice and in life.

How Your Samskaras Can Hold You Back

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 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. In fact, 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.

See also 13 Poses to Help You Break Bad Habits

This is Where Tapas Comes In …

Calls for discipline can be unpopular, and even sometimes thought of as negative. In our free-thinking, self-invented culture, many people hate 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, 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.

See also Fuel Your Willpower to Transform with Tapas

Here’s a real-world way that discipline works in the yoga practice to achieve spiritual results:

My alarm goes off at 5 a.m. and the “old” me (inspired by that old samskara!) 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 5 minutes,” it continues. “It’s way too early—the sun isn’t even out yet,” it nudges some more.

I can choose to listen to that inner voice of my old patterning—or I can choose to get out of bed and start my spiritual practice. It isn’t easy to chart 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 awareness. This dawn, the awakening of inner light, fills me up so much so that it makes it all worth the effort.

“Every Practice Should Contain Some Element of Difficulty”

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 1,000 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.

See also How Sangha Drew Kino MacGregor Away from the “Spiritual Desperation” of a Drug-Fueled Party Scene

Kino MacGregor tapped into tapas with the discipline of her yoga practice. 

How Kino MacGregor Has Tapped Into Tapas

The Tapas of my yoga practice has changed nearly every aspect of my life.

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 practicing yoga. That 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 happen in the late evenings (read: no more late-night parties for me).

Tapas has also changed my daily rituals. Before I started practicing yoga, the only thing I did every day was brush my teeth. Then, I accepted the six-day-a-week demand of Ashtanga Yoga and I haven’t wavered for 20 years. Sure, there are 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 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.

Once I learned how to build discipline on the mat, I learned to be disciplined off the mat as well. I adopted a strictly plant-based diet. 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. While surely I have been both blessed, privileged, and lucky, I’ve also applied the same disciplined approach to life that I applied to my body when learning to jump through, jump back, and lift up in inversions and other asanas. If I failed, I did not waver. I picked myself back up and tried again. Now, there are some dreams (and poses!) that I’m still working on. Yet with the power of Tapas, I am faithful that all is coming in its due course of time.

See also Kino MacGregor’s 7-Pose Yoga Break for Stress Relief

Kino MacGregor embraces the benefits of discipline.

4 Ways to Strengthen Your Discipline This Week

This week’s Yogi Assignment is Tapas. I’d like you to introduce just one challenging aspect to your spiritual practice this week and as you do, be sure that your Tapas is rooted in love—not punishment. With the same kind heart that you would feel as you discipline your child, speak to yourself about the benefits of discipline.

Below are some options for how you might apply Tapas to your practice this week. Of course, you’re 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 free to make this a private, introspective journey. You might find that journaling about your experience of Tapas helps you process your relationship to discipline.

1. Begin an early a.m. 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’ll 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. Eat like a yogi.

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 your 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 confront you with “stuff” you’ll need to look at. But, just try it out for one week and see how you react in both positive and negative ways.

3. Roll out your mat everyday.

Commit to getting on your mat for at least five minutes every day this week. It will be easier if you practice around the same time. 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. Change your thinking.

Your yoga practice gives you a view into your 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 show up 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. 

See also Kino MacGregor’s 4-Step Get-Your-Handstand Plan

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