Discipline in Yoga


[B.K.S. Iyengar teaching the Ladies’ Class @ RIMYI, January, 1984. Photo: Bruce M. Roger]

© Bruce M. Roger 2012

Yoga pays no heed to excuses

Whenever I quote Guruji B.K.S. Iyengar, “You love yoga but hate to practice!” the class laughs knowingly. How many of us still find excuses not to practice? Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras cite disease, lack of resolve, doubt, neglect, laziness, pain, and fear amongst many other obstacles.[1] Underlying these negative traits there is a tacit belief that if we do nothing, our situation will improve.[2] That is what Patanjali calls viparyaya, a false understanding. It could be true, but is not likely to be so. When lulled into complacency by the inertia of tamas, our resolve is tested.


Yoga is a discipline

Patanjali’s very first sutra is Atha yoga – anusasanam, “Now yoga discipline [is explained].”[PYS I.1] For beginners, yoga practice entails the beginning of discipline, not necessarily the end of suffering. For adepts, the prefix anu in anu-sasanam (“follow up – teaching”) implies that the pupil has practiced the preliminary restraints of yama and the self-disciplines of niyama — the first two limbs of Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga — to prepare for samadhi.[3]


Yoga is a tapas

Tapas (ardor, austerity, purification) requires self-discipline. Tapas emphasizes will-power tempered with wisdom rather than brute force. The root of the word tapas may be translated “to burn, blaze, shine, suffer pain, or consume by heat.” It corresponds to the metaphorical fire within the practitioner that is necessary to bear the rigors of yoga and to burn away the impure tamasic attributes such as adharma (non-virtue), papa (sin), and the kleshas (causes of suffering). Tapas removes the tamasic veil of ignorance and, thus, brings the body, mind, and senses to a state of excellence.[4]

B.K.S. Iyengar describes tapas as tenacity of purpose:

“I think the ‘will to do’ is the summum bonum [highest good] of yoga. As one progresses in yoga, character also improves. Fundamentally, what is required is the tenacity of purpose, determination to work hard and complete faith in what one does.”[5]

Although tapas is formally defined as “austerity,” tapas can also arise from the love of practice. “Austerity” and “discipline” connote a harshness in English that fails to convey that tapas need not be so inimical. In the Yoga Sutras the ultimate purpose of tapas is to purify the chitta (consciousness). In English we commonly associate “austerity” with deprivation, emphasizing what has been lost to a greater extent than what has been gained.

Tapas requires tenacity to remove the impurities that arise out of rajasic and tamasic actions, afflictions, and impulses. Then consciousness may regain its chitta prasadanam — its serenity, its benevolence, and its unruffled placidity, like a calm lake.[6]

Tapas disciplines the mind to remain on task without becoming distracted. For instance, if the mind becomes tamasic in supine pranayama, associating lying down with sleep, it causes sluggishness. Elevating the head and trunk on a bolster keeps the mind awake and makes breathing lighter, more sattvic.

Tapas must be guided by the intelligence in asana practice to foster purity. If the elbows are tamasic and unable to straighten in Adho Mukha Svanasana, the back body becomes tamasic and loses its lift. But if the elbows are too rajasic and over-straighten into hyperextension, the back body also loses its lift. In either case, the result is a feeling of “weakness” in the pose because the trunk becomes heavy. However, when the elbows honor the midline to attain equilibrium, the pose becomes lighter and more sattvic, and the mind becomes more sattvic. 

Tapas increases sattvic clarity in the purification process. As a result we realize that although allowing the senses to be drawn to rajasic and tamasic objects bears momentary pleasure, it is ultimately unproductive. For example, a delicious meal is less satisfying than the peaceful, full, light feeling of a good practice. Practice precipitates neither the rajasic excitement and anticipation of the meal, nor the tamasic heaviness and complacent satisfaction following the meal. Removing the impure rajasic and tamasic actions and impulses through tapas uncovers the underlying sattvic mind. It highlights the efficacy of tapas: because we remember how the rajasic anticipation of the meal can rapidly transform into a dull, tamasic “I ate too much!” response, we refuse to succumb to that desire. That is the benefit of tapas.

Yoga demands non-duality

“Make friends with the pose,” exhorts BKS Iyengar. In that vein I sometimes taunt students, “Pretend you like it,” because trying to delineate the self in opposition to the asana only creates duality.

It is my hope that exposing tamasic fear and resentment in practice will help purge it. Just as you cannot own yoga, you cannot conquer a pose or possess it. You can, however, conquer fear by embracing asana as your friend, not your enemy. That is a rewarding way to learn asana.

Moreover, the interpretation of tapas is often bound up with the other dualities of love and hate, and success and failure. For instance, we may also falsely assume that if practice is beneficial it must be painful, or if we fail we must suffer.[7] Not only are these dualities antithetical to yoga, they miss the point of tapas.[8]

Yoga disciplines the errant ego

The mind has different facets. The buddhi, the intellect, unconditionally supports tapas. Like your mother, it “knows what is good for you.” The ahamkara, ego, is threatened by tapas because it seeks immediate gratification without considering the long-term consequences — like an errant child. Disciplining this errant ahamkara is essential to conferring pride of place upon the intellect. Although ahamkara will always protest that restricting its freedom is unfair, its understanding of itself is corrupted by self-interest.

Moreover, ahamkara seeks only joy, and resents sorrow. But yoga can be calming and sattvic without being “fun.” Fun connotes the oscillating duality of rajas and tamas, a roller-coaster of joy and sorrow. It is bhoga, the opposite of yoga.[9]

Ahamkara also seeks recognition. Years ago I heard an ironic statement that missed the point of disciplining the ego: “I’ve practiced yoga for ten years. Why am I not famous yet?” We have to discipline ahamkara in practice to avoid such delusions. As the revered yogin Swami Hariharananda Aranya (1869-1947) commented, “Tapas [to get] a desired worldly object is not yogic tapas.”[10]

[1]         See antarayas (obstacles) [PYS I.30-31]: vyadhi styana samshaya pramada alasya…; and kleshas (causes of suffering) [PYS II.3-9]: …dvesha abhinivesha.

[2]         The belief that our condition may improve on its own accord is a result of another obstacle, bhranti-darsana, “wandering from-the vision.” Another sign is imagining we have attained it when we haven’t. It is a confused, erroneous, and illusory assumption.

[3]         Pandit Usharbudh Arya, Yoga Sutras Of Patanjali, Vol.1, Himalayan Institute, Honesdale, Pa., 1986. p. 72

           Others interpret anu more broadly: either that Patanjali was only following up with a compilation of a practice that predated his era, or that this is Patanjali’s third text, following texts on grammar and medicine.

[4]         Swami Veda Bharati, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Vol. 2, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 2001. p. 557

[5]         B.K.S. Iyengar, Sparks of Divinity, edited by Noelle Perez-Christiaens, Institut de Yoga B.K.S. Iyengar, Paris, 1976. P.226

[6]         VB II.1 …The a-suddhi (impurity; i.e. rajas and tamas) arising out of the snares of worldly objects takes various forms and is colored by the beginningless karmas (actions), klesas (afflictions), and vasanas (propensities). They cannot be loosened or destroyed (sam-bheda) without tapas…. And that mind-purifying (citta prasadanam) tapas should be practiced by the yogin only if it does not impede him further, and only so far as it purifies the citta without hindering health.

[7]         In the Bhagavad Gita, before going into battle, Lord Krishna advises the warrior Arjuna to remain detached and not succumb to duality, else it will bind him to impermanence and impurity:

           BG II.38 Holding pleasure and pain to be alike, likewise gain and loss, victory and defeat, then yoke thyself to battle. Thou shalt not incur evil.

[8]         PYS II.48 From that (perfection in asana) arises immunity to the pairs of opposites.

[9]         PYS II.18 (prakrti)… exists eternally to serve the seer, for bhoga (enjoyment) or emancipation.

[10]       Swami Hariharananda Aranya, Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali, SUNY Press, 1983. P. 214. Bhasvati on PYS II.32.


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