Tapas is one of the five Niyamas. In yoga philosophy, the Niyamas are personal restraints that lead to better character. Tapas can be described as discipline, or austerity, which are the qualities of persistence and perseverance. Tapas is associated with heat and here’s why:
Let’s say you’re in Warrior 1, and after a few breaths you try going a little deeper. You experience a feeling of strength along with a dull, burning ache that releases a wave of heat. At this point, you can decide to either bail out of the pose or work through it, and in so doing, you choose a path of comfort or challenge — a path of tamas (inaction) or tapas. This comes with one clause: tapas is only a virtue if it’s done mindfully. The choice to recharge and power through should be safe and appropriate for your body. It should do no harm (ahimsa). The whole idea of tapas boils down to this: the best things in life are achieved through sustained effort.
There are many ways to create heat at the beginning and throughout a flow class. What you need to keep in mind is that in order to get into some of the deeper poses safely, it requires warming up the spine, shoulders and hips from various angles. For example, to warm up the spine we have to strengthen it with backbends, increase torque mobility with twists and stretch it with forward and lateral bends. To create space in the shoulders we have to take into consideration the upper back and chest as well as the actual muscles surrounding the shoulder joints. The same goes for the hips — warming up the glutes, quadriceps and hamstrings is essential.
Surya Namaskar, or sun salutes, are an easy way to warm-up the whole body and there are many permutations to choose from. The traditional Sun Salutation A and B are made up of starting from a standing position, reaching up, folding forward, taking a vinyasa, holding down dog for a few breaths and then taking it back to standing. The only difference between Sun A and B is adding Chair pose and Warrior 1 to create Sun Salutation B. However, you can do Low Lunge or High Lunge instead of Warrior 1 or replace that Warrior 1 with a Warrior 2 instead. Ashtanga Yoga always begins with five Sun As followed by five Sun Bs. Every pose in this warm-up is moved through one breath per movement with the exception of holding Downward Dog for five breaths after Warrior 1 is done on each side (before taking it back to standing). In Vinyasa Yoga it’s yogis choice and we encourage all of our Teacher Training students to explore their creative side. We like to start our warm-up flows by holding each pose for five breaths so we can work on proper alignment. After the first round we move into repeating the same flow a few more times at the rate of one breath per movement. Encourage students to follow the speed of their own breath regardless of the teacher cues and observe how student feel to assess if they need more heat before taking them into poses that require more flexibility.
Doing core work gets the heart pumping and the heat flowing pretty quickly. We find that 3-5 sun flows with 3-5 minutes of abs does the trick quite nicely. Below are a few of our favorite exercises and poses that fire up the abs:
Neutral arm balances such as Crane and Koundiyanasana are strong, heat-building poses that can be done towards the beginning of class or as a part of a warm-up flow. They both require core strength and proper alignment so cuing them correctly is important. Remind students to breathe and keep their chests extending forward so they don’t collapse the shoulders. As yoga teachers we have an amazing opportunity to relate the physical to the deeper wisdom behind it. While teaching these poses offer some yoga philosophy about Tapas, non-attachment, presence of mind, and perseverance.
Breath of fire, or skull-shining breath generates a lot of heat. Get familiar with how to teach this breath and try it in the following ways:
Malasana (squat) to Forward Fold: Start out in malasana and cue exhaling into forward fold with the arms straight through the legs, palms together as they were in malasana. Inhale back to squat and forcefully exhale to forward fold with arms through the legs. Mention drawing the core into the spine and activating the quads on the exhale and lifting the heart and sinking the hips in malasana on the exhale. As you start to build speed moving in and out of these two poses the ujjayi breathing develops into kapalabhati breathing. Try 15-20 reps and offer eyes closed as an option if students get dizzy.
Kapalabhati in Open Chest Poses: Try it in fish pose, reverse table pose or any other simple backbend where the chest is open. You can also teach it in a simple seated position as well.
As we mentioned earlier, sun salutes generate heat and using the structure of a sun salute to create fun standing flows is a great way to keep the heat coming. In our teacher training we have our students come up with a few standing flows, teaching the first round at five breaths per pose and moving into the same flow 3-4 more times at one breath per movement.
Poses such as headstand, forearm and handstand have several variations that are suitable to offer near the warm-up section of class. Keep in mind that forearm stand and handstand need some shoulder and hamstring openers to make them more accessible. However, moving from crane to tripod headstand or from dolphin to forearm stand is perfectly okay for intermediate to advanced students. All of these inversions build heat quickly and require a lot of abdominal strength, which makes them good prep poses for deeper variations in the peak part of class.
Join us for the next teacher training to learn more about philosophy, anatomy, meditation, sequencing and loads of other fun stuff that will change the way you do yoga.