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The many dimensions of Ahimsa and Tapas in our Asana practice

Ganesh Balachandran, Ph.D.

I have felt the desire to write about two important topics in Asana practice, the misunderstanding of one leads to the violation of the other and ultimately results in pain. These two topics are Tapas and Ahimsa, respectively. When tapas is misunderstood, it causes us to punish our bodies in extreme ways causing a lot of suffering (Himsa). When I started my first ever sustained asana practice three years ago after a major hip surgery, the first words I heard at the Ashtanga Yoga studio were “The first rule of yoga is Ahimsa”. This resonated a lot with me and I felt those were the most sensible words I have ever heard at a yoga studio. Therefore I felt the desire to share this perspective on Ahimsa and Tapas from ancient texts.

PDF of this article: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1rhw6RmxeGx9NNMsaFmbhZp-iXBAxwxzB/view?usp=sharing

1) The many dimensions of Ahimsa

Ahimsa means non-violence. Patanjali in Yoga Sutras 2.35, says that when Ahimsa is established, then there is concord (lack of enmity) with one’s environment and hence all living creatures in it.

Sannidhi: nearby or immediate environment; 

vaira: enmity; 

tyaga: abandonment

Fig. 1: When Ahimsa is followed, there is concord with other sentient beings

For Asana practitioners, Ahimsa can have many connotations. For some people, it could be calming of oneself and not thinking harmful thoughts during the Asana practice because harmful thoughts agitate the mind and cause mental anguish. 

1a) A vegetarian/vegan diet: 

For many regular asana practitioners, Ahimsa means eating a vegetarian diet and not harming other sentient beings that feel pain and emotions.  An excellent book on this topic is by Stacie Dooreck titled “Ahimsa: Nonviolent Eating.” by SunLight Yoga Publishers, 2016. A short excerpt from the book is attached below (taken from the upanishads)

“Sage Uddalaka instructs his son Svetaketu: “Food when consumed, becomes threefold. The gross particles become the excrement, the middling ones flesh, and the fine ones the mind. My child, when curd is churned, its fine particles which rise upwards form butter. Thus, my child, when food is consumed, the fine particles which rise upwards form the mind. Hence, verily, the mind is food”.

Fig. 2: A light sattvic diet is conducive for yoga practice

Numerous renowned asana teachers like Kino Macgreogor have talked about the benefits of eating a vegetarian or vegan diet on the ability to go deep (both physically and mentally) in ones Asana practice [Refs 1,2]. All texts that go into some level of detail on asanas, like Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Yoga Rahasya and Gheranda Samhitha talk about the importance of a mild diet (mityahara) for a yogi’s practice. In the book “The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West”, the author, Michelle Goldberg, describes how, Russian-born Eugenie Peterson, who later took on the name Indra Devi, was at first vexed by T.Krishnamacharya when she started studying asanas under him. Krishnamacharya would at great lengths ask her about her diet and suggest modifications. He would also ask the details of her toilet patterns and recommend her to use the toilet before doing asana and pranayama. To her own surprise, Indra Devi would later say, her gastro-intestinal problems that troubled her for a long time disappeared and her Asana practice became deeper.

Meat is considered a tamasic food in the yogic system because it causes heaviness and dullness and takes a longer time to be processed by the human digestive system than sattvic food. From an ethical point of view also, it makes sense not to inflict suffering on animals when avoidable, while one is one a journey of becoming more sensitive to one’s own feelings as well as those of others. A vegetarian diet is therefore recommended especially for those who try to tune into their subtle body (Sukshma Shariram) through Asanas, Pranayama and Dhyana (meditation). 

Change, however, is difficult for most people. Therefore there is a vast chasm between knowing and becoming. Sri M, the famous Indian Mystic and Guru, at his talks, often laughingly says, “If I ask evey one in this room to become a vegetarian starting now, then half the room will be empty tomorrow. However, as you become more subtly tuned to yourself through various yogic practices, then the deep craving that you may have for meat will fall away and be replaced by the desire to eat more Sattvic food.”[Ref. 3] .

1b) Ahimsa toward oneself

For some Asana practitioners, Ahimsa means not pushing oneself relentlessly on and off the mat to the point of self-harm. This is the context, this article is focussed on. Sadhguru Jaggi Vaudev, the Indian Mystic and spiritual Guru says that the worst kind of violence is self-inflicted. This is because when harm is inflicted on another being, there is some kind of resistance that is put up by that being whereas when the violence is directed toward oneself there is no such resistance.

2) Tapas

The literal translation of tapas is heat. The root “tap” from which tapas is derived is also the root for the word “pitta” also meaning heat for one of the three core doshas (mind-body types) in Ayurveda.  A.G.Mohan, the yoga scholar who studied one-on-one under T.Krishnamacharya for over 25 years gives an excellent description of what Tapas is and what it is not, in one of his lecture presentations. He says that tapas is Sukha Tyagam i.e. giving up pleasure. This is not to be confused with inflicting pain and agony on the body for various reasons including the need to have a sculpted body. Another definition of tapas he gives is “the bearing of discomfort that arises when one does an action opposed to the latent impressions and the thoughts arising out of it”. This, for example, can be controlling the urge to binge on food. 

Fig. 3: Tapas : Heat

Patanjali opens the second chapter of the yoga sutras by laying out Tapas as a core ingredient of the easier form of yoga practice called Kriya Yoga which is the favored practice for the lay human starting on the path of yoga.

तपः स्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि क्रियायोगः ॥१॥

tapaḥ svādhyāya-īśvara-praṇidhānāni kriyā-yogaḥ ||1||

The activities of Kriya Yoga are

self-discipline, study of texts that lead to the self and dedication to the supreme.

Fig. 4: Tapas, Svadhyaya and Ishwara Pranidhana

 A.G. Mohan in his lecture quotes the first sentence in Vyasa’s commentary,

न अतपस्विन: योगो न सिद्द्यते

 “Na atapasvinah Yoga na siddhyati “

Yoga does not fructify for the one who does not so tapas. 

Having laid out the foundation and meaning for tapas, the next section will describe how tapas is commonly misinterpreted.

3) Misunderstanding tapas

Tapas, Krishnamacharya would say, is an internal process. Sage Vyasa,in his Yoga Sutra commentary , uses the word Antarena Tapasah (Tapas is  internal). It is not to be confused with profuse sweating and excessively hard breathing as is associated with hot yoga practices like Bikram and Ashtanga. While sweating to remove impurities has its benefits it is not to be confused with what is mentioned in the yoga sutras. This is the most common misunderstanding among many practitioners and also teachers in some traditions like the Bikram and Ashtanga yoga. Any yoga practice that is done should not lead to mental disturbance. Sage Vyasa says that in his commentary on the yoga sutras,

तत् च चित्तस्य प्रसादमानाम्. 

Tat cha chittasya prasadhamanam

It (tapas) is like a delicious offering to the mind. (Tapas should not therefore lead to mental suffering.) 

Krishnamacharya, who was known to be an exacting disciplinarian when he was teaching his younger students like Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S.Iyengar in Mysore, later in life, significantly softened his attitude toward asanas and would often tell his later students like Srivatsa Ramaswamy [Ref 4]  and A.G.Mohan that Asanas should result in slowing down of the breath and that an asana practice should be tailor made to an individual.

Fig. 5: Krishnamacharya teaching his students in Mysore, seen standing on the chest of one of his young students in the very difficult Kapotasana pose

Fig. 6: Krishnamacharya, later in life, offering tailor made Asana sequences in 1:1 sessions with various people 

With this background on Ahimsa and the clarification of tapas, the next section will talk about practical tips on how to approach our asana practice, when to follow a sequence and when to skip poses to give space for our body to adjust

4) A Sequence and its Consequence: Practical tips on approaching our asana practice

Many yoga schools like Ashtanga, Bikram and Sivananda, follow a sequence of Asanas which they repeat daily. The sequences are often divided into beginner, intermediate and advanced sets. When a student “graduates” from one sequence, he/she starts doing some asanas in the next advanced sequence and slowly progresses toward being able to do all asanas in that advanced sequence. While there is some logic behind how the sequence of poses are arranged, with sun salutations typically at the beginning, counter poses for several poses,and relaxation poses like head and shoulder stand at the end, the sequence itself is not sacrosanct. The main advantage of following a sequence is that it gets you into a routine of flow without having to think which Asana one should do next. However, since our bodies are different, a sequence of asanas to suit everyone is not meaningful. Therefore, one should tune in to one’s needs and modify the sequence with the help of teachers, if possible, skipping asanas, doing modified poses where needed and incorporating poses that bring one therapeutic benefit or simply joy. Otherwise an asana practice over time can become stale and will not lead to the mental benefits that it is originally meant to achieve. All the ancient yoga texts mentioned before, all talk only of a few asanas. Sadhguru says that you only need one asana to transform your life. While it is difficult for our distracted mind to focus fully on just one asana, doing too many asanas will not provide benefit either.  

5) Summary

In summary, the various dimensions of Ahimsa with respect to our asana practice were presented with the two notable ones being a vegetarian diet that does not harm other sentient beings and lack of harm toward oneself by not pushing one’s body excessively. My first Ashtanga yoga teacher would often say that if the Ashtanga yoga practice is not done with a softer inner gaze, it is no different from a GRIT high interval intensity training practice where people push their bodies hard to gain muscle and increase aerobic activity. It is true that with so many Vinyasas in a practice like the Ashtanga yoga practise, one can quickly fall into the huff and puff mode, thereby losing the mental benefits. 

The meaning of the word Tapas and its context in the Yoga Sutras was also presented along with how it is often misinterpreted. Finally practical tips on Asana practice balancing tapas while maintaining Ahimsa are presented 

References

  1. How Yoga Affects Your Life – Ahimsa and the Yoga Diet with Kino MacGregor
  2. The Subtle Benefits of Being Vegetarian with Kino Macgregor
  3. Sri M – Does Eating Non-Veg affect Spiritual Energy? 
  4. Shrivatsa Ramaswamy’s lecture on Yoga Rahasya
https://drive.google.com/file/d/1rhw6RmxeGx9NNMsaFmbhZp-iXBAxwxzB/view?usp=sharing

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