Discipline on the Yoga Path

The spiritual path requires self-discipline, also referred to as tapas in Sanskrit. Meaning “to heat or burn up, tapas is the fire within that motivates us toward change and progress. 

Discipline naturally builds routine and structure in our lives. We all need both these things to work toward our goals and live a life we truly desire. The most fulfilling things we experience in our lives and in ourselves typically come to fruition by building on the momentum that routine and structure generates.

Though building tapas is important, it doesn’t have to be complex. In fact when it comes to discipline, it doesn’t matter so much what you do as how you do it. You can start with something small and devote yourself to that one thing, strengthen your ability to discipline yourself. If you don’t know where to start, try practicing one sun salutation each day.

What’s A Sun Salutation?

A sun salutation, also known as surya namaskar, is a sequence of 12 or so yoga postures linked by the breath. Sun salutations were traditionally practiced as a way to honor the sun. Ancient yogis taught that we each embody the external world within. The sun, they believed, was an external representation of the inner sun within, which corresponds to the heart and contains higher consciousness and wisdom.

Sun salutations are commonly practiced to warm, strengthen, and align the body. It’s the most familiar asana sequence and forms the backbone of many vinyasa style practices. Sun salutations are commonly practiced as part of a warm-up sequence or can be structured as the main focus of a practice.

Surya Namaskar Sequence

Sun salutations can be practiced at any time, but the early morning hours are an auspicious time for greeting the sun and a new day. Dedicating yourself to a practice first thing in the morning (however long or short) is not only a great way to build discipline, it’s also a purposeful way to begin the day and ground your energy before stepping into the day’s tasks.

Follow these poses for a complete round of sun salutation. Repeat as many times as you would like.

Sun Salutation postures:

  • Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
  • Arms Lift (Urdhva Hastasana)
  • Forward Fold (Uttanasana)
  • Half Forward Bend (Ardha Uttanasana)
  • Forward Fold (Uttanasana)
  • Plank (Kumbhakasana)
  • Four-Limbed Staff Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana)
  • Upward Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)
  • Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
  • Forward Fold (Uttanasana)
  • Half Forward Bend (Ardha Uttanasana)
  • Mountain Pose (Tadasana)

Building Discipline With Sun Salutations

We can build discipline along our spiritual path by practicing sun salutations repetitively, consistently, and by drawing our awareness deep into the sensations of each pose.

One powerful way to develop discipline is to practice 108 sun salutations in a single setting. (Don’t worry, if you’re not quite up for 108, any other number will be just fine!) The number 108 is thought to be a sacred number and appears in ancient Vedic texts. Moving through 108 Sun Salutations has traditionally been reserved for the change of seasons, but it can be practiced at any time of day.

Other ideas for building self-discipline with sun salutations include:

  • Practice five full rounds in the morning first thing when you wake up.
  • Build a sun salutation sequence(s) alongside any habit you already have, like before brushing your teeth, before or after eating a meal, while your tea heats, right when you wake up, or before you go to bed.
  • Commit yourself to chanting a mantra that resonates with you while you move through the sun salutation sequence.

Why Practice Sun Salutations?

Sun salutations offer a number of spiritual, emotional, and physical benefits. The sequence lengthens, strengthens, flexes, and extends many muscles while filling the body with prana (life force) through breath. It also increases blood circulation, boosts energy, unwinds the mind, improves digestion, calms the nervous system, opens and releases tension in the body, lengthens the spine, and more. 

Sun salutations also present an opportunity to tap into your healing power. Moving through the sequence is an act of devotion to the sun, the earth, and divine energy. The Sanskrit word namaskar (from surya namaskar, sanskrit for sun salutation) means “to bow” to the divinity within all things and to recognize the divinity in yourself. When approached with a spiritual intention, the impact of surya namaskar is far more healing and profound than the physical level of practice on its own.

Sun salutations can be taken beyond the physical when they’re integrated with mantra. The combination of movement, breath, and sound vibration can help you feel the spiritual activation of the sequence. As you move through it, chant a mantra that resonates with you, or use the Gayatri Mantra to deepen your connection with the sun. (See below for a description of common mantras.)

What’s a Mantra?

Mantras are sacred phrases, words, or set of sounds that are recited out loud or silently. Many Sanskrit mantras were created thousands of years ago by ancient sages as a tool to use to access our inner divinity. Mantras help us connect to universal energy by taking us beyond the mind and into deeper states of consciousness.

In Sanskrit, man means mind and tra means to transport. A mantra therefore is a tool that can be used to guide the mind away from its chatter and into stillness. The sounds of the ancient Sanskrit language are powerful healing tools that have the potential to calm the nervous system, regulate stress responses, and positively change the brain.

Why Bring Mantras Into Your Life?

The physical vibration and the psychological impact of mantras can have a healing impact on both the mind and the body. By breathing deeply and focusing the mind, the body is filled with a sense of relaxation that helps it to release anxiety and tension. This effect can lower blood pressure, reduce stress levels, strengthen the immune system, and improve the body’s circulation.

Mantras can also have powerful neurological effects on the brain. Whether a mantra is chanted, whispered, or silently recited, it has the ability to free the mind from its constant chatter and calm the nervous system. We’re all familiar with the mind’s ability to lead us into negative thought patterns and into false stories about ourselves and the world. When the mind is overactive and led astray, a mantra is like a string attached to the mind that gently draws it back into focus.

Benefits of Chanting Mantras

Chanting mantra can help you:

  • Relax your mind and body
  • Release stress
  • Improve attention and redirect your mood to a positive state
  • Increase your concentration
  • Rhythm and sound can move energy throughout the body
  • Helps release endorphins
  • Helps regulate the heart rate

How to Chant

There are a number of ways to chant. People typically chant out loud, but a mantra can also be chanted silently or even written out. Keep in mind that many of the benefits of chanting come from the vibration of the sound.

It’s important to ask which technique feels best for you. If you don’t know the pronunciation of a particular mantra, there are many videos online that will repeat the mantra to you. As you listen, practice singing the phrases with the video. Mantras can also be practiced during yoga classes that offer chanting.

While you’re completing an everyday task or when you feel anxious and scattered, experiment with chanting either out loud or to yourself whichever mantra resonates with you. This will have a calming effect on your mind and body and it will also help you to focus your attention. After you chant, take notice: what was your experience like; how did it make you feel?

Japa Meditation for Mantra Discipline

Japa is the practice of repeating a mantra repetitively with the use of a mala, a strand of 108 beads that is commonly used for meditation. Malas can help you keep count of the total number of times you intend to chant a particular mantra.

Practicing Japa is also an excellent way to integrate discipline in your life. Choose a number of times you’d like to repeat a mantra (108 is a sacred number and is commonly used for Japa, but you can choose any number that feels right for you). If you choose less than 108, count that amount of beads from the end or tassel of the mala, and after each repetition move your fingers one bead closer to the tassel. The same can be done if repeating 108 times–hold one bead between your pointer and thumb finger per repetition until you reach the end of the mala.

Common Mantras to Practice

Perhaps the most well known mantra is “OM” or “AUM,” the sacred hymn of the universe. This basic but powerful mantra is commonly chanted in yoga classes, there are many others to explore as well. Here are a few other common mantras:

Shanti Mantra

The Shanti Mantra is an acknowledgement of your own limitations and a genuine prayer for assistance toward enlightenment. It can be chanted when you’re seeking divine guidance on the spiritual path. In the translation of this mantra (see below), the unreal refers to the things which bind us to this world, and what’s real is the eternal self.

Mantra:

Om Asatoma Sad Gamaya

Tamasoma Jyothir Gamaya

Mrityorma Umritam Gamaya

Om, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti

Listen to a recording.

Translation:

Lead me from the unreal to the real

Lead me from darkness to light

Lead me from death to immortality

Om, may there be peace, peace, peace

Ganesh Mantra

Ganesh is the Hindu God of Beginnings, and the Ganesh Mantra is most commonly chanted to remove internal and external obstacles in the spiritual and physical realms. It’s a very common yet powerful mantra. Try chanting the Ganesh Mantra daily and notice the effects it has in your life and in your mind.

Mantra:

Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha

Translation:

Om – The primordial sound and vibration of the universe

Gam – The sound of the seed, or Lord Ganesha’s bija [seed].

Ganapataye – Another name for Lord Ganesha, the one who overcomes the obstacles.

Namaha – I offer you my greetings, I bow to you.

Listen to a recording.

Gayatri Mantra (short version)

The Gayatri Mantra is a universal prayer and is the essence of all mantras. Gayatri is the mother of all scriptures, or Vedas. It’s believed that this mantra has the power to burn away the layers of impurities that block the mind from supreme consciousness. It’s a great mantra to chant for the purpose of enlightenment. It’s also great to add before or after practicing Sun Salutations because it honors the Divine as represented by the sun.

Mantra:

Om Bhur Bhuvaha Swaha

Tat Savitur Varenyam

Bhargo Devasya Dhimahi

Dhiyo Yonaha Proachodayat

Translation:

The eternal, earth, air, heaven

That glory, that resplendence of the sun

May we contemplate the brilliance of that light

May the sun inspire our minds.

Listen to a recording.

Our spiritual journeys are hindered without the power of tapas, or self-discipline. Just as one doesn’t write a book in a single day, discipline has to be integrated into our daily lives in order to experience its powerful, long-term impacts.

The force of tapas can take time to build, but it grows stronger each time we show up to our mats and stay devoted to the path of growth. Inviting a consistent sun salutation practice and/or a mantra practice into our lives is a great way to either begin or continue to build discipline.

What is one small step you can take this week to welcome one or both of these ancient and sacred practices into your day?