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Adding a deeper layer to your Yoga; Cultivating 'Tapas'

Yoga for building heat, firing up focus, and transforming habits. By Laura Pearce, Senior Yoga teacher, founder of Yoga Collective London.

According to Yogic philosophy (the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) the practice of building heat in Yoga is called Tapas.

Tapas not only denotes the physical heat we feel in a challenging flow or intense posture, but also the 'burning off' of negative energies and thought patterns (denoted in the philosophy under the umbrella term; 'impurities') which requires discipline, motivation and strength.

It is essentially a diligence that we cultivate during our Asana practice (and off the mat) which helps us learn to persist when things get tough; a useful trope to maintain particularly during the winter months when everything seems a bit tougher, and the body is sluggish and tired.

There are several ways in which we can use Yoga not only to warm our bodies, but to motivate and energise us too.

There are few better tools than a powerful Asana practice to help you hone your tapas training. Holding a difficult pose on your yoga mat can prepare you for staying with discomfort in your daily life, helping you to launch into serious self-study and not be controlled by that which makes you uncomfortable.

The ultimate physical heat building-sequence in Yoga is the classic sun salutation. The name 'sun salutation' comes from the idea that these movements heat up and awaken our internal 'sun', warming and preparing the body for other poses. It's a particularly dynamic part of most western Yoga practices and the simple repetitive nature makes it an easy sequence to learn

If you're looking to really warm up you can practice 3-5 rounds of Surya A (traditional Ashtanga style sun salutations) holding your strong down dog for 5 breaths on each round to wake up the shoulders even more. Follow this with 3-5 rounds of Surya B and you'll be feeling toasty in no time!

If you want to truly tap into the concept of Tapas, make sure you challenge yourself with these sequences, creating a mental 'friction', bringing up negative thought patterns, sitting with them, and watching and waiting for them to 'burn' themselves off. Usually this friction happens as a result of a new habit being formed, so, for example, you could add more sun salutations every time you practice, or add some challenging Ujjayi breathing. Be sure to be disciplined and use a meditative approach, not letting the mind wander as your body moves.

It can be helpful to keep notes of negative thought patterns that arise, to really observe the mental resistance that comes up; try to notice the friction in real time (eg. are you thinking 'I'm not good enough'? Or 'This is to strong my body is weak'? 'I can't bend more than this'? Or even 'I'm bored'?).

Another very warming, Tapas honing type of Yoga pose is the backbend - any back bend will do, you can try locust or bow pose (hold for 5 breaths and repeat) or more advanced Yogis can go for full Wheel pose. Back extension nearly always causes our heart rates to soar as they put a little tension on the diaphragm, heart and aorta. Stop to notice that 'high energy rush' feeling after a big back bend; I think of them as natural coffee shots and a great way to wake us, energise us, and warm us in the winter. The more you really observe and take stock of this head during the pose, rather than just moving through the motions without paying attention, the more we are cultivating Tapas.

You can incorporate some backbends if you're needing to build some serious heat by adding them to your sun salutation routine. when you lower to the ground (Chaturanga) take a moment on your belly for Bow or locust pose. This routine is particularly nice for morning practices as again those backbends can make us feel really alert and energised!

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