Monday, May 25, 2009

Rising to the Top with Tapas

The niyama tapas, austerity or discipline, is a difficult idea for many of us.  I thought I'd look at the dictionary to see what it says about austerity and discipline.  New World Dictionary says "austerity" implies "strict self-discipline" and "discipline" implies "training that develops self-control, character, or orderliness and efficiency."  I like "discipline" better and it seems to fit the yogic meaning of tapas.

Tapas is from the root word "tap," which means heat.  It's not a temperature type of heat, it's a kind of a "fire in the belly," a desire to meet your goals type of heat.  From B.K.S. Iyengar, in "Light on Yoga,"

Tapas...meaning to blaze, burn, shine, suffer pain or consume by heat.  It therefore means a burning effort under all circumstances to achieve a definite goal in life.  It involves purification, self-discipline and austerity.  The whole science of character building may be regarded as a practice of tapas.

Tapas is the conscious effort to achieve ultimate union with the Divine and to burn up all desires which stand in the way of this goal.  A worthy aim makes life illumined, pure and divine.  Without such an aim, action and prayer have no value.  Life without tapas, is like a heart without love.  Without tapas, the mind cannot reach up to the Lord.

Wow.  That says it all, doesn't it.

In our American culture, discipline has gotten a bad rap.  We think of discipline as punishment.  But in the time of Patanjali and his codification of yoga in the Yoga Sutras, discipline had a connotation of self-care.  Doing even mundane chores can be self-care, too.  For example, you will have much more inner peace if you just do your dishes, rather than having them in the back of your mind saying "wash me, wash me."  Think of all the peace you will have if you stop procrastinating?  It is truly helpful to think of discipline in this way.  Think how much better it would be if you thought of sticking to your eating plan or exercising regularly as taking care of yourself.  When we are disciplined, we build our character and have pride in ourselves, just by taking care of our daily business.

Your assignment this week is to think of discipline as self-care, not punishment.  What is something you've been putting off?  Is there a goal you want to achieve on which you've made no progress?  Pick something this week to finish.  When you complete it, sit down, close your eyes and experience the peace of a job well done.  Of course, journaling about your experiences is a good idea.

We all choose where to be disciplined.  I'm disciplined when it is fun to be disciplined; I like doing yoga, hiking, knitting and reading. I choose the fun stuff! I'm going to do this week's assignment with you, and report back to you next week on my own results.  (Accountability never hurts!)  I have been putting off some work in my master bedroom.  So, I will put away all my clean clothes and switch my winter and summer clothes.  I'll let you know how it goes!


Monday, May 18, 2009

Being Content with Santosha

Santosha, contentment, is my favorite niyama.  If we can't be truly contented with our lives, our bodies, our "whatever," we can't find true and lasting peace and our ability to concentrate suffers.  With contentment, we can rest in a place of peace without desire or attachment.  When we practice santosha we are happy with what we have and what happens in our lives, rather than being unhappy because of what we don't have or what doesn't happen.

In our culture, it can be difficult to find contentment.  Our culture is quite concerned with competition and comparison, keeping up with the Jones', for example.  We are assaulted by advertisements that promote the desire for material wealth and possessions and sensual experience.  If we don't have the material possessions, money, or the body on the magazine cover, or we don't drink a certain drink or eat a certain meal, etc. etc., we feel inadequate.  We are led to believe that if we have those things we will be happy and worthy.  Those feelings of inadequacy, due to competition or comparing ourselves to others, block our ability to feel peaceful.  This is even though, logically, we know that happiness is not gifted to us because we have the right "things," lots of money or because we have the perfect body.

Feelings of inadequacy are the work of the ego.  Santosha gives us the ability to accept things as they truly are, rather than forcing ourselves to achieve the desires of the ego.  Then, we have the ability to see which desires are from our heart and spirit and which are created by the ego.

As a teacher, I sometimes see my students thinking they have to go further into a pose than is best for their bodies, sacrificing alignment and causing undue stress.  This is due to the struggle of the ego wanting to do the pose "right."  If you are in the alignment that works best for your body and provides your proper balance of effort and ease in this present moment, and you practice with a joyful spirit, you are doing the pose "right."

Santosha is a choice we choose to make.  We choose santosha by being content with what we have and what happens in our lives.  We choose peace.  When we practice santosha, we develop an emotional maturity.  While we may have powerful feelings, loss or the inability to attain a certain thing or state does not devastate us.  We could lose our job or relationship and, while we might have intense feelings around the situation, we can have the ability to move past the situation and continue to live our lives without causing ourselves undue pain and suffering.  Being overwhelmed by our feelings, desires and attachments serves no one.  With santosha we have the ability be courageous and find solace in the face of an otherwise miserable event.

In Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar says:

Contentment and tranquility are states of mind.  Differences arise among men because of race, creed, wealth and learning.  Differences create discord and there arise conscious or unconscious conflicts which distract and perplex one.  Then the mind cannot become one-pointed (ekagra) and is robbed of its peace.  There is contentment and tranquility when the flame of the spirit does not waver in the wind of desire.  The sadhaka [spiritual aspirant] does not seek the empty peace of the dead, but the peace of one whose reason is firmly established in God.

This week's assignment is to keep a gratitude journal.  Every day write down five things for which you are grateful.  (Of course, you can write more if you wish.  It is your journal.)  Often, what we really need to feel contented is to be grateful for what we have.

I wish you contentment and peace!


Monday, May 11, 2009

The Next Limb of the Tree

The next limb of Ashtanga yoga philosophy is niyama.  Niyama is comprised of five personal observances: sauca (purity or cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (disclipline or austerity), svadhyaya (self-study), and ishvarapranidhana (devotion).

Sauca is concerned with keeping ourselves pure and clean, inside and out.  Outside sauca is pretty straightforward, good grooming and keeping ourselves clean and presentable.  Keeping ourselves clean inside means caring for our mental and physical health, keeping our internal organs functioning well and our minds clear and clean.  We can attend to inner sauca by practicing pranayama and asana, as well as by meditating.  A clear and clean mind is free of disturbing emotions like greed, hatred, anger, delusion, pride, and the like.

Practicing sauca brings radiance and joy to the body and mind, and banishes mental pain, dejection, sorrow and despair.  Not too bad for just taking care of yourself, is it?

The purity and cleanliness of our food, and where we eat it, is another aspect of sauca.  We feel and perform our best when we eat well.  We don't feel our best when we eat fast food and candy.  B.K.S. Iyengar, in "Light on Yoga" says,

Character is moulded by the type of food we take and by how we eat it.  Men are the only creatures that eat when not hungry and generally live to eat rather than eat to live.  If we eat for flavours of the tongue, we over-eat and so suffer from digestive disorders which throw our systems out of gear.  The yogi believes in harmony, so he eats for the sake of sustenance only.  He does not eat too much or too little.  He looks upon his body as the rest-house of his spirit and guards himself against over-indulgence.

Note: Iyengar doesn't say you can't like your food, only to not like it so much you overeat.

This week, take good care of yourself.  Reflect on how you can take even better care of yourself.  Eat well (on a clean, presentable table), exercise well, meditate well, and start making some new habits.  Journal about your experiences.

Next week, we will talk about santosha (contentment), my favorite niyama.


Monday, May 04, 2009

Hold On to Aparigraha

Aparigraha means non-hoarding and is another facet of asteya (non-stealing).  We are to receive only what is appropriate, no more.  If we take more than what we have earned, we run the risk of exploiting someone else.  There is no need to get greedy.  When we collect or hoard, it implies a lack of faith in God or in ourself to provide for our own future.

B.K.S. Iyengar in "Light on Yoga" says,

By the observance of aparigraha, the yogi makes his life as simple as possible and trains his mind not to feel the loss or the lack of anything.  Then everything he really needs will come to him by itself at the proper time.

Swami Kriyananda, in "Raja Yoga" says aparigraha "leads one to become non-attached even to his own body.  It is by such perfect non-attachment that the blindness of temporary identifications is overcome..."   Aparigraha prompts us to learn to let go and surrender, and not hold on to, or identify with, the past and that which is not for our highest good.

This week, your assignment is to look at your life.  Is there anything you are holding on to?  Have you been greedy?  Look at your physical environment first, then your emotional, mental and spiritual environments.  Try journalling about it and make a plan to let these things go.  I assure you, you create a vaccuum by letting go of your "stuff."  It allows space for even better things to come your way.

This concludes our discussion of yama, the first limb of Ashtanga yoga philosophy.  The next limb is niyama.