If that sounds a little harsh, it is understandable. After all, yogis are well-known for valuing actions that support self-care, compassion and honoring the body’s limitations. So it’s reasonable to think that we’re easy on ourselves when practicing yoga, right?
The answer is two-fold. On the one hand, yoga encourages us to be kind to ourselves and to others, for reasons we come to understand through regular meditation, asana and self-inquiry. On the other hand, yoga as a discipline demands a lot of us, as staying committed to a regular practice is not always easy. However, believe it or not, discipline, when practiced appropriately, can be considered a form of self-compassion and self-care.
Most of us have had experiences that demonstrate the inherent importance of being challenged as a means to self-discovery, growth and evolution. Think about your own experiences in a yoga class or in other settings. How many times have you discovered an insight or breakthrough right after you thought you were at your limit? The example of Arjuna, the archetypal protagonist of the Bhavagad Gita, (as well as other heroic and historic leaders) teach us that a person often has an experience of God, or self realization only after they push themselves further than they originally thought themselves capable.
Embracing challenges can be a way to explore ourselves at deeper levels where we ultimately experience greater emotional, spiritual and physical freedom. Without challenging ourselves, we easily fall prey to the kleshas, the obstacles to samadhi. The kleshas include: ignorance, egoism, attachment, hatred and clinging to bodily life. Releasing the kleshas is a far more challenging than showing up to practice or trying a new pose (say, taking your first attempt at a headstand, even though you’re fearful of going upside down). Yet each time we work through challenges during asana, we’re more likely to do the same ‘off the mat’ and in our daily lives.
Embracing challenges during our yoga practice allows us to generate heat, or tapas, which helps to burn away and release obstacles, revealing the lessons of strength that lie beneath them. The other definition of tapas is “self-discipline.” If we utilize these definitions in tandem, we understand that accepting the challenge of tapas sometimes means welcoming a little bit of discomfort as part of the process. Like the element of fire that transforms that which it burns, tapas can transform our ignorance into deep knowing, our hatred into compassion. But, for this to happen, we’ve got to commit to showing up to the practice.
Once we discipline ourselves to practicing, we can build heat in the body, often done through movement and pranayama. Since we don’t access the strongest heat with movements that are easiest for us, it is important to challenge the body with asanas which require more strength and stamina. However, it’s important to remember that for some, it’s more important to create internal or mental heat over physical—that is, tapas is not always about a temperature or degree. For instance, if you find yourself resisting gentler forms of yoga because the thought of moving slowly or sitting in meditation prompts frustration, aggravation or anger, you may find your churning not in a heated room, but in a cooler, quieter one.
However you stir up tapas, another benefit of challenging yourself is to move away from the habitual mind. While routine can sometimes have a meditative effect, it can also be a way of “zoning out” and not being mentally present for our practice. Switching up your yoga style can be not only physically challenging, but also challenging in a way that fosters more mental presence. Both kinds of challenge are equally important, and incorporating them into your sadhana has the power to unchain you from your illusions and offer true freedom.
Challenge and discipline are elemental practices that have the power to burn away our impurities and transform like fire. But remember—too much fire should always be balanced with enjoyment and calmness. Excessive austerities can be just as damaging as not enough, so when you challenge yourself in yoga remember to gauge it by asking “Am I evolving, gaining insights, transforming and feeling inspired?”
If the answer is yes, you have struck the sweet spot where challenge yields positive results. If the answer is no and your discipline leaves you feeling uninspired, depleted or stressed, it may be time to try reevaluating your approach.
What are practices that challenge you in the ways that you need to find freedom?