Yoga is a discipline.
I know this to be true in my own life. My disciplined practice began 20 years ago. Since then, I make certain I am on my yoga mat, moving through various postures — every, single, day. To me, it feels as if this happened naturally. But, I sense there’s an innate essence in yoga which somehow drives its practitioners to embrace yoga as a self-discipline, and take to the practice day in and day out, just as I’ve done for many years.
There exists many words and ideas in the yoga tradition that express this fact. Here are four that come to mind when I think of discipline.
Discipline Described in Four Words
Abhyasa describes how we get from the commitment and purpose of yoga to the actual goal of yoga, which might be summed up in the term, nirodha (cessation). In other words, abhyasa stands for consistent effort. It is constant action without interruption. It takes a state of presence in our practice, as well as a willful determination to fully embody this state of discipline.
Each morning, when I step onto my yoga mat, I’m practicing the repetition that is abhyasa. This efficacy gives me the capacity to produce beneficial results.
Vairagya is abhyasa’s counterpart. It can be described as an evolving sensibility of dissociation or disinterest. If abhyasa embodies the action and efforts of yoga, vairagya embodies its surrender. We take a step back from preferences and desires. We witness the things that propel or impede us. We detach ourselves in a healthy way from the "I want this. I don’t want that." The state of vairagya disentangles us from the relentless chasing of desires.
(More on the idea of healthy detachment in Success in Yoga: The Combined Practice of Asana, Meditation and Detachment.)
Tapas is another powerful yogic term that points to discipline. It’s often translated as austerity, or a kind of fiery discipline. When we practices with tapas, we practice with an inner heat, an inner fire that’s necessary to do the work of yoga.
One of the main goals of yoga is to withdraw from the desires and preferences of the material world in order to reach a state of oneness with the Divine. To do so requires tapas — an inner experience that’s often associated with the ascetic yogi. Tapas is what happens to us when we practice the restraint of the ascetic.
Ever tried fasting for any period of time? This withdrawal from the normal routines of material life takes tapas. Yoga requires self-control, discipline. It requires tapas. Feeling the tapas, or burn, makes you able to say "no" or "yes" to the cravings of the material world. You get to decide whether or not you're going to engage. The more tapas you have, the easier this will be. Tapas becomes a marker of virtuosity and creates a space of immunity from the world of ephemeral desires.
(More on Tapas and the Discipline of Yoga.)
The ashram is yet another place of self-control and self-discipline. While we often consider an ashram to be a place where we go to chill out, it’s also a place we go to toil. The lesson here is that it takes effort and work (in a balanced way) to relieve our fatigue. We need to exert ourselves (through yoga, pranayama, meditation and ashram duties) first and foremost, if we want to finally chill out. It’s ironic, but the thing that depletes you, empowers you. The yoga tradition rewards our efforts. Right action equals strength, grace and peace of mind.
In the ashram we learn how to reach our boundaries, to burn tapas from within, without reaching a point of burnout. The ashram teaches us this state of balance between effort and surrender.
(When you're ready, here's How to Prepare for Visiting an Ashram.)
Discipline Is a Gift
All these fiery, disciplined efforts help us to arrive at a changeless, unconditional state of identity —otherwise known as the True Self, the Atman. The True Self pervades all of existence. It is unconditional, while co-existing with the material world of conditions. We know all of this because of what Patanjali teaches in the Yoga Sutras. He aims to uncover the reality of life, which is to say:
There’s a conditioned reality with which our minds identify, in most cases, to a point of completion. But the discipline of yoga allows us to practice and create a process that detaches us from this conditioned reality. We’re not necessarily trying to reach the sublime state of nirvana. We’re simply learning how to stop identifying with the limited and conditioned reality — in a rather ordinary and even automatic way. In doing so, little by little, bit by bit, we begin to identify with another kind of consciousness. It’s the consciousness that realizes the face of your being that’s always been there — one that’s not at all like the ephemeral, changeable and problematic identification most mortals live with their entire lives.
This is a powerful state of being. It’s why we take to our mats each day. Yoga is both a discipline and a gift of being.
(Read on to Discover the Best Time of Day for Your Yoga Practice.)