Dharma Talk

Find­ing Ash­tanga Yoga helped teacher Erika Hal­weil tap the power of tapas and a daily prac­tice.

Yoga Journal - - Contents - Erika Hal­weil is a yoga teacher in New York. Learn more about her at erika­hal­weilyoga.com.


of my life—and my yoga prac­tice—be­gan to shift in my late 20s. When I was 29 years old, go­ing through a painful di­vorce, I was forced to make a new home for my­self and my 18-month-old daugh­ter (our home was in fore­clo­sure, as I was one of the many af­fected by the big mort­gage cri­sis of 2008). I no longer felt sup­ported by my daily asana and pranayama prac­tices. For the first time, my senses seemed clouded and dulled. In­stead of com­ing to the mat care- and painfree, I found my­self over­whelmed by the ac­tiv­ity in my mind and the dis­cour­age­ment in my heart—and I was dis­tracted by an un­fa­mil­iar fa­tigue and ach­i­ness.

For­tu­nately, fate guided me right back to my mat. I had al­ready been teach­ing yoga for nearly a decade at this point, and I had been ex­posed to Ash­tanga Yoga on sev­eral oc­ca­sions. But af­ter I had been strongly in­flu­enced against it by one of my most beloved teach­ers, I had re­acted to it with aver­sion and judg­ment. Yet, at this par­tic­u­lar mo­ment in my life, this prac­tice felt like home. I ap­pre­ci­ated the quiet. I was soothed by the even rhythm. I felt sup­ported by the de­tailed struc­ture.

In this sys­tem, you use your breath to link pos­tures in a pre­cise or­der, and you use your gaze to rest your at­ten­tion in a spe­cific place. With daily prac­tice, I re­al­ized very quickly that asana prac­tice is not so much about the var­i­ous pos­tures that come and go, but rather how

we uti­lize our even, con­tin­u­ous breath­ing and steady gaze to stay en­gaged in ac­tion and sus­tain fo­cus. When we prac­tice in this way, we can more pro­duc­tively greet the mild anx­i­ety that of­ten comes up when we try new and chal­leng­ing things—ul­ti­mately learn­ing how to ob­serve and re­spond rather than judge and re­act.

Of course, this is eas­ier said than done. Our bod­ies can dis­tract us with aches, pains, and crav­ings; our breath can be shal­low, er­ratic, and la­bored. And our minds are usu­ally wild with thoughts— jump­ing all over the place—and of­ten rid­dled with fear. How can you sim­ply drop into the prac­tice and steady your breath and mind, re­gard­less of how you are feel­ing or what has hap­pened that day?

When my in­abil­ity to fo­cus and my ten­dency to­ward distraction be­came too pro­found, I re­al­ized that I needed to get out of my head. In­stead of fol­low­ing the move­ment of my mind, I di­rected my at­ten­tion to my senses.

In the Yoga Su­tra, Patan­jali ex­plains that the key to men­tal pu­rifi­ca­tion is tapas— dis­ci­plined ef­fort, which pro­duces a cleans­ing heat. When one’s mind and body are pu­ri­fied through tapas, the heart is free to shine.

Tapas is our will­ing­ness to use body, breath, and mind to be­gin an unglu­ing process—to make a sac­ri­fi­cial fire of our­selves. This fire can be un­com­fort­able, so tapas also refers to the abil­ity to cul­ti­vate and sus­tain the ca­pac­ity for the hard work that helps us over­come chal­lenges and set­backs. One of the ways yoga helps us prac­tice this dis­ci­pline and create the fric­tion and sub­se­quent heat re­quired for change is by giv­ing our senses some­thing to fo­cus on so they don’t run wild and tear our minds apart.

Asana (re­lat­ing to our sense of touch) are de­signed to soften us and help us re­lease fear, pain, and doubt. In this sys­tem, we are

en­cour­aged to re­main still, with­out fid­get­ing, for the length of the pos­ture. This re­sis­tance to fid­get­ing re­quires thought and con­tin­u­ous ef­fort and cre­ates heat. We breathe through the nose, with sound, into the en­tirety of the rib cage, ch­est, and back, while the mouth re­mains closed. This struc­tured, even breath­ing (re­lat­ing to our sense of sound, smell, and taste) also re­quires thought and ef­fort and adds to the fire we are build­ing. The breath is a con­stant re­minder that things come and things go, and re­sis­tance to this is fu­tile.

Our sense of sight in yoga is sup­ported and strength­ened by the gaze. We are en­cour­aged to rest our eyes softly, in one place, to help fo­cus the mind. As we help our sense or­gans to fo­cus, we burn away distraction and be­come more sen­si­ble and more sen­si­tive. This has an ef­fect on our re­la­tion­ship with the world. We be­gin to cul­ti­vate dis­cern­ment that will help fur­ther our spir­i­tual pur­suits through bet­ter choices.

It was the clear struc­ture of the Ash­tanga prac­tice; the ex­plicit, im­me­di­ate goal of cul­ti­vat­ing deep, pu­ri­fy­ing heat; and clear in­struc­tion to con­sciously di­rect all of my senses to be­ing present that was most lib­er­at­ing as I dealt with the chal­lenges of my late 20s.

The heat that I cul­ti­vated brought a youth­ful sup­ple­ness to my body. All of the de­tails and sup­port al­lowed for free­dom from the heav­i­ness of my mind. The re­lief I re­ceived on the mat al­lowed for an effortless re­turn to my en­joy­ment of sa­cred texts, pranayama, chant­ing, and med­i­ta­tion prac­tices. Very soon there­after, as is al­ways the way, the dark clouds passed, and I was left with a deeper un­der­stand­ing of why we take the time to prac­tice each day—to make our­selves ever more re­cep­tive to the divine gifts all around and within us.

Erika Hal­weil

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