tapaḥ svādhyāy-eśvarapraṇidhānāni kriyā-yogaḥ

तपः स्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि क्रियायोग:

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, an ancient yogic text compiled some 2000 years ago,  by sage Patanjali, enumerates specific actions  or practices which support the process of aligning with our true nature or what is sometimes called the “Higher self”. Aligning  with that true nature will always lead us to greater clarity, wisdom and empowerment.  Asana, or the physical yoga postures which we practice, are a small piece of that, and actually the positions themselves are influenced by the level of clarity which we have created through the practices which work on the mind and reveal the heart. Patanjali’s text is a compendium of theory, methods and results organized to foster depth and simplicity.  Each sutra or line is directed towards a single focus.  One key grouping of practices is identified in PYS – Sutra

2.1.  The sutra reads:

तपः स्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि क्रियायोगः ॥१॥

tapaḥ svādhyāy-eśvarapraṇidhānāni kriyā-yogaḥ ॥1॥

We know that these three apparently unrelated practices are related to one another because they are placed together in the text.  I reflect on them as a triangle.  A shift in one element of the triad will influence the other two.  A translation always reflects the experience and world view  of the translator.    For me, tapah (intensity, fire, desire) expresses as a strictly disciplined and heart felt mode of nurturing an intention which benefits both ourselves and others.    Sometimes this refers to an offering oneself and historically is associated with yogi’s placing themselves into penance or suffering to bring them closer to the divine.  My experience of yoga is more balanced.  Right now, we are all practicing tapah.  It’s April 2020 and the whole world is in lockdown in the wake of the corona virus.  While we can stay home with the intention to stay healthy, from the yogic perspective your overall result will be better if you stay home because you want everyone else to be healthy!  This is a reflection of tapasya…to give up something for love of the whole.  As the teaching in the Bhagavad Gita goes, no effort made in this way will ever be wasted.  Does it mean we will be rich and contented?  Not necessarily, but the deeper levels of fulfillment which are opened up through yogic practice nourish us in unique and powerful ways which add tremendous value to a life.  We could say giving up a little opens the door to a life well-lived.

Svadyaya, the second point of the triad, refers to the many modes of (S)(s)elf study.  The yogin comes to know their individual conditioning and personality  – the so called “small” self – through observation and analysis.  Through meditation, study of sacred texts and other yogic practices the yogin comes in contact with a larger experience of their consciousness.  This contrast fosters comparative study of our personality and our spirit, which yields discernment.  Discernment is a key to acting with wisdom in our lives, to sift through the subtle possibilities of our moment by moment decisions in order that we might always choose the most valuable option. 

The final point of this triad is ishvara pranidhanani which is translated as surrender or cultivating the willingness and receptivity to come into alignment with our higher self through attention , intention and action.  Practiced together, these three practices form the basis of the entire yoga practice  – and create a ground of taking actions which will bring us out of confusion and into clarity. 

In this moment, the world is shutdown in response to the threat of the corona virus.  That shutdown in itself forces us into a position of surrendering our personal will, making sacrifices for the larger whole and being present to ourselves in a new way. 

For many people this is precarious and unsettling.  Feelings we’ve been suppressing for decades may come bubbling up to the surface.  That is a result of the clarifying nature of this kind of restriction.  The yoga practice prescribes this as things to take on willingly, with discipline and intention so that we might use the moments of restriction to wake up rather than dig deeper into the murky sea of emotions and imaginings which govern us in ways which are frequently not to our advantage. 

By choosing to consciously and deliberately embrace this period of time as an opportunity to grow and transform into a new way of being we take that perception that we are victims of the virus, the government or the others we are in the household with, and we turn it into an inwardly empowering victory.  These inner victories are the seeds of powerful practice and the opportunity to create them through tapah, svadyaya and ishwara pranidhanani is present in every moment.

How to practice:

  1.  Use your capacity to self-reflect as you go through your day.  Where do feelings of conflict arise?  Does the conflict emerge from some habitual way of being which is no longer functional?  Is there something (an expectation of your spouse, a craving to run out to the store for chocolate, a tendency to blame or take the easy way out) that you can respond to by taking a hard step or giving something up (tapah)?  What happens if you softening around the situation to receive what is already present, rather than what you might be wanting (ishwara pranidhanani)?  What happens if you stop and take a breath and turn inward?

  2. On your yoga mat, what is it which surfaces a tangle of mind chatter or emotion?  Sometimes it’s a scary posture, sometimes it’s child’s pose.  Sometimes we can spend a great deal of time fluctuating around getting on the mat, or attending to the 10,000 other demands for our attention.  Once again, the triad is useful.  If you can’t get a moment of peace to practice, you can surrender into that experience, accepting it.   Getting up very early to practice is a common tapah which many mothers I know practice. Can you let go of doing a posture you are compulsively drawn to, or engage that posture which scares you a little?

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