tapah svadhyay-eshvarapranidhanani kriya-yogah ||1||
तपः स्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि क्रियायोगः ॥१॥
tapaḥ svādhyāy-eśvarapraṇidhānāni kriyā-yogaḥ ॥1॥
Practice characterized by rigor and vigilance toward itself, without attachment to the outcome, is known as kriya yoga. ||1||
tapaḥ = (nom. sg. n./acc. sg. n. from tapa) austerity; discpline; intensity; self discipline
svādhyāya = (iic.) self-knowledge; vigilance concerning onself
īśvarapraṇidhāna = submission to a personal God; self appointed task; without attachment to the outcome
kriyā = (nom. sg. f.) action; yoga of action; kriya yoga
yogaḥ = (nom. sg. m. from yoga) yoga
Kriyaa yoga is characterized by tapaḥ, svādhyāya and iśvarapraṇidhāna, each of whose meanings I will now discuss.
Tapaḥ literally means fire, burning, or asceticism. In other words, the term connotes purposeful action, as well as passion, cheerfulness and self discipline. Tapaḥ is a precondition for development, not only spiritual development but in all other spheres as well. All accomplished individuals exhibit a substantial capacity for tapaḥ. For example, a runner who breaks a world record or wins an Olympic gold medal may make the feat look easy. However, the mere pleasure entailed by sports is not enough; for in order to succeed, an athlete must be willing to train even if he’s not in the mood. Tapaḥ is also a key to success the political and business spheres. And tapaḥ frequently comes into play in my own life as well. I believe that where there’s a will, there’s a way. In other words, any setback we suffer is part of the learning process and should be regarded as a challenge to accept this fact and persevere.
From a spiritual standpoint, I follow the tradition of aṣṭāṅga yoga, where physical practice of the Āsana-Viṇyāsa system forms the basis for the spiritual path. My alarm goes off at 5 each morning. It’s still dark outside and my bed is warm and comfortable. Sometimes I consider the possibility of making an exception and sleeping a bit longer. In such cases, tapaḥ is my maṇtra, which I repeat silently to myself while standing on my meditation mat after having gotten out of bed. Even though the āsana viṇyāsa practice of aṣṭāṅga yoga is physically demanding, the practitioner soon realizes that the real challenge lies elsewhere. I often ask my yoga students which of the many yoga positions they find the most difficult. The hardest one, āsana, is always the most daunting – the first things in life, the first action of the day: each day is a fresh beginning.
Although, as everyone knows, all beginnings are difficult, without a beginning there can be no practice. Hence it’s no accident that tapaḥ is presented as the first of the three aspects of kriyā koga. Discipline is essential in such cases. But once you’ve made a start, your breathing combined with the powerful energy field of tradition will carry you through, via practice.
The literal meaning of svādhyāya is self-knowledge. For me the concept of svādhyāya entails an encounter with myself, i.e. taking account of my own traits and discovering my boundaries. The deeper you let yourself delve into something, the more you learn about yourself.
The runner and athletics coach Arthur Lydiard once said, “Run with me and I’ll tell you who you are.” All athletes have experienced this. Oftentimes it is the encounter with yourself that is a particularly engaging experience. Sooner or later you reach a point of total exhaustion. At such times, your thoughts recede into the background and you find yourself in the here and now – a here and now in which you shed all of your usual social personas. Only in this state are we truly ourselves. Aspects of ourselves manifest ourselves that we thought we had successfully long since suppressed. In such cases, you have no choice but to confront these sides of yourself head on and integrate them. Such experiences gradually lead to a transformation – which is exactly what occurs with the practice of aṣṭāṅga yoga. And this is why the physical aspect of this practice is so demanding.
The other face of svādhyāya is paying attention to the here and now. In this state, I am alert to my intuitions and do their bidding. In the aṣṭāṅga tradition, spiritual practice is based on a physically demanding system involving breathing and movement. This practice is intended to take you to your personal limits, which you can work on but must always accept and respect. Such acceptance is necessary in order for the practitioner to understand that practice takes different forms for each individual, depending on the practitioner’s personal inclinations and tastes, as well as their capacities and anatomy. And each day is different as well. Some days you may feel strong and flexible, and others less so. Svādhyāya teaches you to be attentive to these differences and to each day seek a practice that works for you. “Any individual can practice yoga, so long as he can breathe,” said Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888–1989). “Anyone can practice yoga, except for lazy people.” Based on this statement, the tradition of aṣṭāṅga yoga is being carried on by my own yoga teacher, Pattabhi Jois, who is able to practice aṣṭāṅga yoga despite being confined to a wheelchair. If you’re only able to move your fingers, then begin your practice there.
Human beings are often very good at finding excuses, particularly when it comes to the physical practice of yoga. But such excuses do not apply to aṣṭāṅga yoga, since each individual can find a practice that works for him.
Over the years, I’ve observed with interest the changes in my own personal yoga practice. On some days every muscle in my body feels strong and I do my exercises effortlessly, whereas on other days I feel as though my I weigh 500 pounds and have the strength of an ailing 90 year old. Both of these aspects are important. I learn to accept myself, and in so doing rediscover myself anew each day. Thus svādhyāya has become part of my daily practice of yoga.
As a physician, I’m often called upon to perform my duties under considerable pressure and to assume weighty responsibilities. I also engage in a number of other activities: I’m working on a scientific research project; I’m the doping prevention officer for a triathlon organization; I’m the physician for a national sculling organization; I teach yoga and I teach anatomy classes for yoga teachers. When I feel that burn out may be impending, I recall what my father used to tell me: “Lie down, before you fall down.” This is also the essence of svādhyāya.
The literal meaning of iśvarapraṇidāna is submission to a personal God. Ośvara means the God you imagine, regardless of which religion you may belong to. Submission to a higher power leads to acceptance and to an absence of expectations.
If you fail to achieve the desired results despite all your efforts, you may feel frustrated or angry. However, kriyā yoga teaches us to except any fruits of our efforts. By infusing our actions with tapaḥ (self discipline), our goal becomes the experiences and insights we gain on our journey (svādhyāya) rather than the destination. In the same vein, Kr̥ṣṇa says to his student Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gītā, “Arjuna, you need to act without any attachment to the fruit of your efforts.”
In my cardiological rehabilitation work, I help heart attack patients to regain their health and in so doing point out to them the factors that may have caused their heart attack, and the risks they may face in the future. Such patients soon realize that they can take responsibility for their own health by, for example, giving up smoking, changing their diet, and doing more exercise. But such patients are also subject to risks such as hereditary factors, age, and gender that they cannot do anything about. Kriyā yoga is helpful in such situations, as it tells us to change what we can change and accept what we cannot – in other words the principle of iśvarapraṇidāna, or acceptance.
In my own spiritual tradition of aṣṭāṅga yoga this principle is often misconstrued in that many people confuse the outer manifestation of practice with spiritual growth. The nature of your physical practice is determined by age, body type, talent and genetics, all of which you need to accept, and in so doing abandon any other expectations you may have in this regard. Bear in mind that aṣṭāṅga yoga is not the Hindu answer to aerobics. In other words, the physical manifestation of your practice is merely a means to a spiritual end.
The experience of yoga should not be confined to the excercises you do on a yoga mat; for yoga can potentially bring about far reaching changes in your life. The insights you gain doing yoga exercises can and should be applied to everyday life. If you do this, you will find that even difficult tasks can be mastered with all-out cheerfulness, as well as self discipline. Yoga enables us to intuit the right path and the proper way to travel that path. By practicing yoga, we learn trust and acceptance via the experience that results are never solely the fruit of our own efforts. This insight relieves us of personal responsibility and ultimately liberates us.