Sunday, May 2, 2010

Tapas, Svadyaya, and Moving Forward in Our Yoga Practice

After you first started taking yoga classes or started practicing on your own, you may have experienced an initial quick improvement in the yoga poses, and in your overall sense of health and well-being.    You became stronger and more flexible, and you probably felt good after leaving class.   Then you may have hit a plateau where nothing much changed for a long time.   This is very common  -- I'm guessing we all go through it if we stay with yoga for any length of time -- and I know it's frustrating.

How do you get past this plateau?

Two of the components of niyama (second limb of yoga which focuses on personal ethical observances) are tapas and svadyaya.   Tapas is the Sanskrit word for "burning determination" or "strong discipline".   Svadyaya is "self-study".

We need these two attributes to help us to move off our plateau and start climbing again along our yoga path.  We need svadyaya, or honest self-study, to figure out why we are stuck in our practice, and we need the discipline, or tapas,  to do the work to get "un-stuck".

I'll focus on difficulties in our physical practice right now, although how we go about working through these difficulties also inform us about how we work on difficulties in our daily lives.

Some of the reasons that a pose can be difficult are:
  • Stiffness
  • Weakness
  • Lack of balance
  • Lack of understanding the poses (especially the more difficult ones)
  • Resistance to discomfort (resistance to change)
  • Fear

Most of these reasons can be addressed just by practice.    We still may always have a tendency toward stiffness/weakness/lack of balance, but less so if we just practice.  Sometimes we have to look more closely at these specific reasons.   If one part of the body remains particularly stiff even with diligent practice, how do we work this out?   Or if balance eludes us (I know this one well!),  how do we work on this?   Sometimes you'll need extra information and help from your teacher to understand these aspects of the poses.

Resistance to discomfort is a mental obstacle.   To really improve, we will experience discomfort in the poses.  There is no way around this!   If we work to maintain comfort all the time, the poses will never get better even if we do them daily, and eventually we'll back-slide.  (Well, we all eventually back-slide anyway, but we can stave this off for longer with diligent, intelligent, thoughtful practice!)

Fear can be a difficult problem to get past.    We have to figure out what's scary about the pose and if this fear is reasonable, and how to take steps to get past this fear.   Sometimes there's a very good physical reason that we just shouldn't ever do the pose.   Sometimes we THINK there's a good reason to not do the pose, but maybe we're fooling ourselves.  Sometimes progressive baby steps toward the scary part of the pose is all that's needed.  BUT make sure that these baby steps are not really just shuffling back and forth in place, or even shuffling backward!   (Yes I see that in some students!  I see it in myself with one pose in particular!  Do you see that in yourself for certain poses?) 

Suggested homework for the week:
  • Pick a pose that has been eluding you but that doesn't seem too far out of your reach.
  • Look at it closely and decide what part of the pose is most difficult for you.
  • Decide what you need to do to work through this particular difficulty.  Maybe working on a similar but simpler pose will teach you how to improve your more difficult pose.
  • Then actually do it!   At least a few minutes each day!   
  • If you still have problems, ask me for ideas.  
  • Then carry through with my ideas!
Don't give up!

p.s.  If you haven't already looked at this, and want some ideas for overcoming obstacles to your own practice, read Practice Yoga at Home

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