Monday, May 5, 2014

How To Win In Yoga

Have you ever won first place in a race, in a pie eating contest, or in a spelling bee? Ever finish at the top of your class or score the highest on an exam? Ever been named MVP of your team? Are you competitive? If not, does it matter in yoga? If so, can you bring that quality to your yoga practice? 

The third niyama (observance) from the Yoga Sutras is tapas, which is translated as fiery discipline. The word tapas contains notions of heat, self-discipline and unquenchable drive. The Sanskrit verb "tap" means "to burn." Tapas in our yoga practice is the consistent and passionate effort we bring to our mats each time we practice, and it is also the determination we bring to our lives off the mat. Tapas is a willingness to show up and do the work, day in and day out. 

Will you be the best in your yoga class if you consistently observe tapas in your practice? Perhaps. To know for sure might require a panel of judges, which is an unlikely scenario... so you may never know. What you can count on is that when you observe tapas, you will be your best self in your yoga class. You will do your best. You may not have the ability to be the best, but each of us has the ability be our best.

To illustrate the difference between doing your best and being the best, something we may easily forget in our competitive society, I will give you an example from my life as a parent: 

Both of my sons play soccer. One of them seems to be developing a natural ability for it. The other one likes to play and practice at home, but typically has a hard time focusing at practices and games and tends to get upset and frustrated. When I was watching him at his practice and game this past weekend, he was unfocused, running around the field aimlessly, even twerking in the middle of the field at one point when he was supposed to be playing offense. Several times he stopped what he was doing, looked at me and gave me two thumbs down when another kid got the ball away from him. Afterwards he talked to me about how unfair the game was. I talked to him about not worrying about how well the other players were doing but instead focusing on his own efforts in staying on top of the ball. I reminded him of all the time he spent goofing off instead of getting involved and applying himself. He said he was upset by the other kids playing better than he did, and so I told him that was not an excuse for not trying his best anyway. I said, "You may not be 'the best,' but you still have to do your best." Can't we all relate to that? 

At the end of the yoga class I attended yesterday, just before my son's game, the teacher had taken us through a very challenging practice and I was unable to complete the goal pose, flying pigeon. However, I still tried to do it. I have a suspicion that I could have tried a bit harder and come closer to getting into the pose. It's an advanced arm balance and I am not ready to practice it or teach it yet, but I may be in the future, and I can set it as a goal. At the end of the class, the teacher told us that how we approach the most challenging postures and sequences tells us a lot about how we approach challenges in life. Studying our habits and patterns helps us get to know ourselves. Some of us push too hard on a regular basis. Others of us have a tendency to lay back. I fall into the latter category. I think my son may as well. Before we left, my teacher told us that as yogis, we have an unwritten obligation to walk out of class and put forth our best efforts in all we do. I actually think that obligation is written after all, in the sutras that teach us about tapas. 

If we ask ourselves what needs work in our lives, we will know where to channel our fiery discipline. Tapas is a commitment to finding the areas we need to work on and then showing up everyday to do the work. Tapas for you could look like finding that extra half hour per day for meditation, or committing to weekly volunteer work, or sticking to a budget. 

In yoga class, tapas won't always translate to mastering the toughest postures or having a practice that appears very strong on the outside. Sometimes tapas will mean working more on our internal habits, such as being overly competitive. If you are a competitive person, you can use that trait to your advantage in observing tapas, both in working hard at your practice and in disciplining yourself to ease up more often. Sometimes what is required for us to be our best selves is to allow more rest into our practice, or to work on cultivating healthier mind/body patterns. When you do yoga, tapas is always going to mean doing your very best, committing yourself to your practice with unrelenting discipline. So we have to be relentlessly mindful of our edge, knowing where we need to work harder and where we need to back off, channeling our best self onto our mat and always moving from that place. 

I invite you to be extra mindful of fiery discipline today, so that you are not just playing around or tuning out, but instead using all of your attention and effort for the next hour and a bit. Commit to your postures and execute them to the best of your ability. Commit to your breath, your rest and your renewal, so that you are really giving your best to yourself. Only you know what you need to work on, so make your practice your own, but see it as work instead of a mindless pass time. Work hard with no excuses, and you will win your yoga! 


  1. Great writing thoughts, and funn-ee picture. What is "winning?"

    1. In a scenario with limited time or resources, it is getting what you want before the clock or the stuff runs out, and winning implies that there is a loser. Winning against yourself requires being a better person than you were yesterday. The entire concept falls apart as a person progresses spiritually because in reality, time and resources are unlimited and the limited self does not exist.