This post is intricately connected to last month’s post, Kriya Yoga and Svadhyaya. That has a fuller explanation of Kriya Yoga, and is an excellent place to start if you haven’t read it yet.
Let’s start with a question: do you have a regular yoga practice?
First off, take a moment and notice if that brought up any reactions for you. Defensiveness? Guilt? Laughter? Annoyance? Pride? An eye roll? Bring on the self-awareness and see if you have any quick answers or default emotional responses. Then let’s do another test: how do you feel when I tell you that, as a yoga teacher, I don’t have a regular asana yoga practice outside of the classes I teach?
While you notice your reaction to that, let me share how that used to land for me – like a big, guilty, embarrassing no-no. I was taught that I’m supposed to be a leader, an example, and as such, I should be on my mat on my free time. For years, I grimaced inwardly when I heard that question, and answered only if I had to – with an abashed, “Wellllll…”
Over time, though, I began to let go of the concerns. I don’t have to look good, or be perfect, or devote any extra time to flowing through poses if I don’t want to. What’s more, I found ways to practice Yoga without needing to schedule class time – by taking the mental and spiritual practices with me, and practicing “the yoga of action” wherever I am. I started working with Kriya Yoga.
To briefly review: Kriya Yoga is mentioned in the Yoga Sutras. As I view it, Kriya Yoga asks you to go off the mat, and is a very hands-on approach to Patanjali’s goal – eliminating the obstacles we have to seeing truly, and helping us integrate with something greater than ourselves. There are three components of Kriya Yoga: tapas (discipline or heat), svadhyaya (Self study or study of ancient texts), and isvara pranidhana (surrender to pure awareness).
Of course, practicing Kriya Yoga is more than just an excuse to not attend an asana class – it takes work, commitment, and a certain amount of discomfort. Even the act of surrendering is a challenging proposition, which is why tapas is the first element Kriya Yoga brings up. You must go through the fires for svadhyaya and isvara pranidhana to truly be effective.
The most commonly used translation of tapas, nowadays, is self-discipline. (It used to be translated as ‘austerity’, which resulted in practices that seem to me more like self-torture – fasting, holding your arm up for forty-five years – crazy stuff. I’m personally glad this approach is no longer popular!) In our outer world, this discipline can be as simple as showing up on your mat or meditation cushion – taking action to purify your body or mind. Consistently showing up will create the habit of showing up, which, in time, creates more and more mental control over our actions. Wouldn’t that create a new level of self-respect? Knowing that you’ll do what you set your mind to?
Tapas can also be related to heat or purification, though, which addresses the less-popular aspect of the practice. Namely, the acknowledgement that at times, taking yoga into action will be hard. Enormously so. Earth-shatteringly challenging. Difficult to the point that giving up – going back to your carefree ways – will look incredibly appealing. And it’s designed to freakin’ burn you. (Keep reading – I think this is a good thing!)
How, you ask? The practice of tapas invites a purification of the body – eating well, moving regularly, the good ol’ “diet and exercise” we hear our modern medics touting. When combined with svadhyaya (self reflection), tapas is holding our ego to the fire and asking the hard questions…without flinching away from the ugly inner truths. Was that comment cruel? Have I gotten too comfortable with my mindset/partner/career? Am I a racist? We don’t like looking at the deep, dark pieces of ourselves, especially if the radical honesty that requires calls us to change elements of our life that we find easy. We like the path of least resistance! And tapas turns every self-inquiry into an uphill climb. Where can you go deeper? What can you uncover? The questions are never ending, and rarely easy.
Even surrender can be a purification process. The place where tapas and isvara prandihana meet is, in essence, the funeral pyre of the identity. Not only does yoga ask you to surrender and accept, over and over, the circumstances of life that you may or may not like; not only are you encouraged to align your mind time and time again with an inconceivable ideal; not only does surrender beckon you to give up resistance, but it invites you to let go of your identity entirely. (No more saying, “I’m a Beiber fan!” “I’m well-organized!” “I’m not good enough!” All of the identifiers, out the window.) And since your identity is currently at the helm, driving your mind, it (obviously) thinks the destruction of identity is a BAD idea.
And so, this practice can hurt. Hopefully not in an I-haven’t-eaten-in-seven-days kind of hurt, or even the white-knuckled mental grip of trying to be something you’re not. But I cannot deny that asking our sense of self, the very sense that has been in control for as long as we can remember, to let go of that control? That is a Big. Ask. And if it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, you may not yet realize the magnitude of that surrender.
Knowing this, the next logical question is: Why? Why put ourselves through the fire of purification? Why encourage bodily health and wellness, only to make the ego uncomfortable with its reflection, and eventually destroy it altogether? What’s the gain? What’s the point?
The way I see it, the first benefit is in knowing you’re capable. Self discipline in any area, when coupled with recognition, creates self-respect. You get to be someone who’s doing the thing they said they’d do – showing up, physically or mentally, and following through. As you start asking yourself the hard questions, and really, truly examining the answers, outer challenges to your character or personality are less confronting. You’ve been accused of not listening to your partner? Of treating someone cruelly? Rather than getting up in arms over it, you have the practice to view this accusation as interesting – and to honestly assess whether something needs to change, or amends need to be made. (Another way to view this: your identity starts to loosen its grip.)
As you keep at the practices, surrender ceases to be a negative. The connotation can change to “going with the flow” – because does life not continue to flow onward, whether we like or dislike the circumstances? Think of the power you’ll have when you find choice and calm in the midst of upsetting or overwhelming situations. Job loss – surrender to the event, find the next course of action. Death of a loved one – surrender to the emotions, express them, and resolve them in whatever time it takes. Realizing a lifelong dream – surrender to the joy, the acknowledgement, and keep calm when the shine slowly, inevitably, wears off the apple.
Having not reached the end myself, I can only speculate on the benefits of fully releasing the identity – i.e., being totally integrated with something greater. Teachers before us claim it’s worthwhile, and I find the side benefits pretty appealing.
That said, you still have choice – and choosing not to follow the path, or not follow it to its intended end, is very much an option. The identity may or may not ever dissolve completely. But does that matter? There are benefits to developing determination, self-awareness, and a live-and-let-live attitude that will begin to permeate this life immediately, no matter how deep you dive. How do you want to practice Kriya Yoga? By showing up to class? By taking on your life? Or simply by asking, again and again: what can I learn from this moment?