Many of us began our Yoga practice because of a painful experience in our past: physical, emotional, or mental. As Yoga teachers, we must remember that many of our students come to Yoga for similar reasons. Sometimes students look for a way to off-load the pain –something that magically frees them of all anguish. Sometimes we do the same thing, taking anti-depressants, paying the blame game, or running to our teachers or mentors expecting them to take away our suffering instantly.
We spend countless hours running unnecessary thoughts in our minds: “Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this? How could this person do this to me?” If we examine this behavior closely and ask ourselves whether these types of thoughts actually give us an answer, we can see that they merely waste our time and energy. Regardless of how long we have been practicing Yoga, all of us face pain, on different levels and with varying intensity. Accepting our experiences is our first step forward.
We can only find relief from our grief through acceptance. Master Sivananda, the beloved Guru of our Gurudev Swami Satchidananda, beautifully said: “Adapt, adjust, accommodate. Bear insult; bear injury; this is the highest sadhana (spiritual practice).” Until we understand that the purpose of grief is for our personal growth, we cannot evolve. The lessons we learn through life’s challenges purify the ego and release us from our selfish attachments to our bodies, our relationships, and our principles. The purpose of our Yoga practice is to live each moment with awareness and presence. When we do this, we realize that we don’t have much control over anything. All we can do is choose our attitude.
Whether we are suffering from an illness, the loss of a loved one, or even an unjust situation, the real practice of tapasya is to face our challenges head-on. Here are some helpful ways that we can practice tapasya personally, and help those around us through tough times:
Even as healthy individuals, we occasionally have a troublesome body part or catch the seasonal flu. Some of us have to deal with serious or terminal illnesses. In all cases, we become attached to the body especially during times of sickness. We are afraid to lose the body or we become upset that the body cannot perform to our personal standards (regardless of whether our standards are realistic).
Any resistance to accepting a disease causes emotional stress and, as a result, more physical pain. How we react to our body influences our experiences as well as our spiritual growth. To practice tapasya on a physical level, we must accept the body’s condition. If we take the time to relax and listen to the body, we may realize that all we need is proper rest in order to regain our energy. In this case, good physical practices of tapas are: Yoga Nidra (deep relaxation) and pranayama (breath control). Practice of the asanas (Yoga postures) might not even be possible, but visualization of these postures definitely is. Practicing also helps build up the energy of the body.
At other times the body is ready to stop functioning altogether. We can learn to accept our path with the attitude of gratitude: thanking the body for serving us well and thanking our friends and loved ones for caring for us. This is where we focus on the more internal practices of tapasya. We must switch our focus inward to nurture our souls and remember that death is not a failure of life. It is the final passage where the soul leaves the body. We are more than just the body; we are more than just the mind; we are the immortal Self. Constant repetition of this thought also helps us develop an attitude of acceptance.
Losing a loved one is never easy. Many of us experience a deep grief when someone has died or when a close relationship breaks away. Grieving should not be looked at like a disease. It is a natural process we go through as humans. Eventually, we must all come to terms with our situations in order to be able to move forward.
As part of our human condition, our minds always focus on our loss, our personal misery, what we don’t have. Blaming the universe, God, or even the person who has left us is very easy for us to do. This is where the practice of Pratipaksha Bhavanam—the practice of replacing negative or disturbing thoughts with opposite or positive thoughts— comes in handy. This helps us to accept our situation as a means for purification. No matter what our loss, either by death or by breakup, remembering the beautiful moments shared and carrying them forward in our lives are the true forms of acceptance.
We must all learn our life lessons through painful experiences that come to us. Sri Gurudev said, “Pain is a warning about some mistake you made.” It is important to learn the lesson and move on; otherwise, we will have to repeat the same patterns until we do. We all need adversity to know the truth. Similarly, we all need to know the “bad” in order to understand the “good.”
If someone insults us, it is wise to examine our reactions. Most of the time, our minds become full of horrible thoughts about the person who has insulted us. If we look at our thoughts closer, we can see that all the turmoil is in the mind. It is only our thoughts and attitudes that cause us pain, not the person. True tapasya means learning to forgive. For some of us, this can be the hardest thing to do. Sri Gurudev says: “To go into a corner and say a mantram is easy sadhana. Anyone can do it. But if we are insulted and keep a serene mind, it is higher than saying thousands of rosaries of japa. That is tapasya.”
We can sometimes create our own mental suffering, just by our need to control things, or to be right all the time. Resisting changes or diversity creates mental friction. Embracing changes and differing opinions in our lives is another way to develop acceptance. Situations just play out the way they do, and all we can do is control our attitude, practice purity of mind, and remember not to blame anyone for causing us this misery. This is the highest form of spiritual practice. “When these three disciplines are practiced with zeal and sincerity and without looking for some personal gain, then this is pure tapas.”
Hersha Chellaram E-RYT 500, RPYT, RCYT, CIYT, has studied yoga under the loving guidance of Sri Swami Satchidananda since she was a child. She is a certified Integral Yoga instructor, Yoga therapist and authorized Integral Yoga teacher trainer, registered with the Yoga Alliance and International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT). She now teaches yoga to all ages and abilities. She focuses on students with chronic health conditions or special needs. She also provides general classes, workshops, and teacher training courses.
Hersha works with many charitable organizations, teaching free Yoga, Art & Meditation Courses to the Ronald McDonald House charities, Joshua Hellmann Foundation, Directions Association for the Handicapped, Christian Action, Vision First, and Society for Community Organization.
(from the February, 2007 IYTA Newsletter)