Finding Your Edge: Ahimsa and Tapas

by Enid Spitz
originally published by Street Yoga

At Street Yoga we’ve been talking a lot about preventing injury and promoting self-care as we prepare to host the practice of 108 Sun Salutations in Seattle June 7th, 2014.  We want this challenging, sweat-filled, energizing morning to be every bit as safe as it is fun.  So we reached out to Enid Spitz– one of the event’s nine fabulous yoga teachers– to reflect on the ways ahimsa and tapas have manifested in her life, and asked for some practical advice for how to approach the practice of 108 Sun Salutes.

Screen Shot 2014-05-11 at 1.51.55 PM108 is considered sacred; it’s the only toll-free area code in India and the number of stitches on a baseball. And some claim 108 degrees is the temperature threshold for healthy internal organ function. In the world of yoga, a full Mala of 108 sun salutations is all this: sacred, sporting and physical. But the Mala especially relates to two foundational ideas too: Ahimsa and Tapas.

Flowing the sun salutations, we dance between respectful non-violence (Ahimsa) and fiery self-discipline (Tapas). 

If you see these two Niyamas (moral observances) as opposites and a full Mala practice as torturous, you’re not alone.

It’s easy to see this practice as tapas-centric, all challenge and heat and power. But a full Mala is not about burning yourself out and Ahimsa and Tapas are not so opposite as they seem.

In 2010, overwhelmed with too many jobs, finishing a degree and attempting some ideal social life, I found myself instead hospitalised with an irregular heartbeat. My life had reached such a powerful peak, even in my yoga practice, that it burnt out. Suddenly, without the options of work or activity or stress, I found tranquility in their place. But accepting rest was challenging too.

“Ahimsa,” from the root word “hims” or harm, goes beyond the physical to include a mentality of acceptance and a lifestyle of care. Far from passive, ahimsa requires great courage. On your mat, this might mean the courage to skip a posture even when everyone else practices it. It might mean challenging yourself to eliminate judgemental thoughts about yourself or others.  For me, it was the courage to let go of control and accept my limits. Approaching a challenge on the mat, I’m often reminded of just how vital, and difficult, Ahimsa can be.

It takes as much dedication to practice mindful care in a society so focused on achievement as it does to sustain the fiery self-discipline of Tapas when challenges seem insurmountable.

When cultivating Tapas, extremism tends to creep up on us. Discipline and internal fire (“tap” means “to burn”) are powerful concepts, but power doesn’t always mean pushing beyond your edge. Instead, Tapas in an asana practice might mean committing yourself to move at the pace of your breath, or challenging your tendency to skip backbends.

Undertaking 108 sun salutations, your body temperature will rise. You will undoubtedly flow through cycles of inspired energy and fatigue. And just maybe, somewhere between Virabhadrasana and Chaturanga you might discover that Tapas and Ahimsa are actually a good pair. Maybe in the float between cycles 80 and 81 you’ll find that it all comes back to mindfulness. You will need to use a strong intention to sustain your internal fire and careful awareness to protect your body.  As you flow, fly, float and falter, keep in mind: yoga is about balance. A flame with too much oxygen will be blown out, too little and it’s smothered.

Whether you are challenging your self-discipline or granting yourself rest in the spirit of Ahimsa, the point is mindfulness. What you do with intention, that’s your yoga!

How to practice Ahimsa and Tapas on the mat:

Ahimsa

  • If something hurts physically, modify or skip it
  • Take breaks when your body, brain or breath get strained
  • Try not to judge the yogis around you or yourself in relation to them
  • Smile! It releases neurotransmitters in your brain that make you feel happy
  • Remember why you are here, your goal is to use yoga to prevent harm

Tapas

  • Ujayi breath! It builds internal heat, fast
  • Set a practical intention and check in every 10 salutations or so if you lose it
  • Think about your own goals and ethics and stick with them, even if it’s tough or someone else’s ideas seem better
  • Challenge yourself to try something new, whether it’s taking a break or breaking out a new breath technique

 

Enid Spitz is a yoga instructor and writer who pairs Vinyasa and Ashtanga practices with her studies in neuroscience and yoga therapy. She leads brain+body workshops and flowing classes with fun playlists throughout the Pacific Northwest. In Seattle you can find her at shefayoga Roosevelt, CorePower Yoga and Urban Yoga Spa. Connect online @enidrosalynenidspitz.wordpress.com or Enid R. Spitz Yoga on Facebook. 

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