“Tapas Svadyaya Isvara-Pranidhana”: An Interpretation & Explanation

By: Cristina Ortiz

Yoga Sutra 2.1:  Tapas Svadyaya Isvara-Pranidhana Kriya Yoga

Translation: Tapas: to change, Svadyaya: self study, Isvara-Pranidhana: acknowledging prana, Kriya: movement, Yoga:Union.

Interpretation: Through our sacred practice of yoga, we build a burning motivation to better ourselves and the world.  Looking within the self, while surrendering to the way of the universe (Prana) cultivates the wisdom required to know what can and cannot be changed, and therefore guides us in effectively utilizing our physical, mental and emotional energy.

 What does it look like?

Young Woman Seated in a Row Boat, Renoir

Young Woman Seated in a Row Boat, Renoir

You’re in a boat.  Paddling upstream.  I mean, “paddling” upstream.  You’re not going anywhere.  Your energy?; It’s draining.  Your will to go on is diminishing. What's moving in the water? Is that the tentacle of a river monster?  You're friends are on the shore screaming at you to turn back but you don't want to listen. What could be so important upstream that you would endanger yourself to this extent? Is it a supposed treasure? Could you paddle the boat to shore and walk instead?  Could you just let go and let the waves carry you down stream?  Then maybe you’ll find something even BETTER, or just as good down there… and even “just as good” would be better because it will have been attained in an easier manner than an ongoing upstream struggle. Alternatively, what if there is no other way to attain this treasure? What if you heard rumors that there's a possibility of something really scary down stream? Well then, fear would keep you going upstream for sure, but we don’t grow unless we face our fears.

We find ourselves in this type of situation at certain times.  It emerges in interpersonal relationships whether they are romantic, with a friend,  a parent, a family member a co worker.  This situation circles around when we overwork ourselves and refuse to take time for “me.”  It happens at those times when you catch yourself doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a new outcome and complaining when the results are again the same.

It comes up in really simple things too, like trying to open a really tightly closed jar; I can tell how much effort It’s going to take to open a sticky lidded jar in the first try or two to twist it off.  Shouldn’t I just grab a towel or a rubber jar opener for assistance if I can tell it’s going to hurt me, instead of exerting uneven energy through my already arthritically compromised wrist?  If not, I wouldn’t be practicing [1]Ahimsa(non- harm or non-violence) toward my body.  That wouldn’t be a wise use of my energy ([2]Brahmacharya). 


tao of pooh.jpg

I’ve been reading a book called the Tao of Pooh (yes as in Winnie the Pooh), by Benjamin Hoff, and there are some great examples of Tapas Svadhyaya Isvara-Pranidhana, though in the practice of Taoism, it goes by a different name.  In this book the author opens a dialogue with Pooh Bear, in which they discuss snippets of Winnie the Pooh stories to explain the Chinese tradition of Taoism…

“’One disease long life; no disease, short life.’ In other words, those who know what’s wrong with them and take care of themselves accordingly will tend to live a lot longer than those who consider themselves perfectly healthy and neglect their weaknesses.  So in that sense at least, a Weakness of some sort can do you a big favor, if you acknowledge that it’s there.  The same goes for one’s limitations.

            Once you face and understand your limitations you can work with them instead of having them work against you and get in your way, which is what you do when you ignore them, whether you realize it or not.  And then you will find that in many cases, your limitations can be your strengths.”

In reviewing what at first sight is a nonsensical poem, Hoff explains that this concept of Tapas Svadyaya Isvara Pranidana, or Things Are As They Are, can be expressed just by being true to yourself-BE YOU!

"a fly can’t bird but a bird can fly.’ Very simple, It’s obvious isn’t it And yet, you’d be surprised how many people violate this simple principle every day of their lives and try to fit square pegs into round holes.  Ignoring the clear reality that Things Are As They Are.”

 And my favorite, how simple yet profound….

Winnie-the-Pooh, Cottleston Pie

Winnie-the-Pooh, Cottleston Pie

 “’A fish can’t whistle and neither can I.’ Coming from a wise mind, such a statement would mean, “I have certain limitations, and I know what they are’…..There’s nothing wrong with not being able to whistle, especially if you’re a fish. But there can be lots of things wrong with blindly trying to do what you aren’t designed for. Fish don’t live in trees, and [3]birds don’t spend too much time underwater if they can help it. Unfortunately, some people-who always seem to think they’re smarter than fish and birds, somehow-aren’t so wise.

Abandoning what is impossible doesn’t mean to give up on everything.  Look back to the interpretation of Sutra 2.1

Through our sacred practice of yoga, we build a burning motivation to better ourselves and the world.  Looking within the self, while surrendering to The Way of the universe (Prana) cultivates the wisdom required to know what can and cannot be changed, and therefore guides us in effectively utilizing our physical, mental and emotional energy.

Our goal should be to identify what can and cannot be changed.  What can you improve? For example, I have a chronic autoimmune disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, that has affected the mobility and strength in my joints. Because of this I have limits.   I could ignore the effects it’s has on my body and do things like running, going on long walks or hikes without RESTING, or movements in an asana practice like jumping into chataranga.  While I might have the muscular strength for these activities, it’s likely that performing them would cause further permanent damage to my synovium and joint space.  It’s no fault of my body.  I don’t have “bad knees” or "a bad wrist" as a matter of fact I have great knees, look what they have endured through 20+ years of living with a disease that attacks them…and they are still here for me? Wow they’re great.  People talk about their Bad Knee, Bad Back, Bad Wrist.  Our bodies do so much for us, and here we are calling them bad. [4] Pobrecitos. We need to remember Ahimsa!  And Tapas Svadhyaya Isvara-Pranidhana. Do what you can, and don't try and do what will hurt you.

My physical body holds the wisdom that I need to tap into to know the fine line between strengthening myself safely and doing too much, something often referred to as “The Edge” in yoga.  If the body holds the wisdom, how do we access it? The brain holds subconscious competitive nature-survival of the fittest right?  At often times we need to be smarter than our minds.  That’s why Svadhyaya-self study is so important. Svadyaya is quieting the mind to bring awareness to the body and to [5]prana to cultivate a deep knowledge of your body’s own energy-a type of Wisdom.  This wisdom within is what guides us to knowing what can and cannot be changed and how to act accordingly.

Limits often become strengths for people who have been practicing yoga for a long time. The physical is the entrance to yoga.  That’s why we do the asana practice.  From there we learn to apply these same principals to our every day lives and connections. My physical limitations have helped me develop a great sense of respect toward my physical body.  It’s doing the best it can do.  My physical body is here for me every day.  Keeping me alive, without my body as my vessel my mind emotion and energy would be in complete disunion.  So having lived with chronic pain and periods of physical disability I have come to be grateful for my body every day.  Which I can’t know for sure I would respect to this extent if I didn’t always live my life with this disease. 

Figuring Out what it Means:

As a practitioner I might go through these phases (not necessarily in this order) to have an understanding of what Tapas Svadhyaya Ishvara-Pranidhana Kriya-Yoga means to me.

Tapas/to change: I want to better my health and strength of my body through a yoga practice.

Svadhyaya/self study: I realize I’ve had some health issues. I know what parts of my body are affected, but how am I supposed to know if I’m going to hurt myself?

Ishvara-Pranidhana: I need to ground my energy and feel whats there with my breath. I move in accordance to my body-it’s no worse or better than anyone else’s it’s mine.  I don’t have preconceived expectations of my body based on anything external.  I respect what my body offers me, I help it improve but don’t push it past it’s limits and never abuse it.

Kriya-Yoga: This practice requires so much focus. This effort and motivation is cultivating energy.  It is creating a UNION of my body mind and spirit.  My body is looking out of me, I am looking out for my body.  I’ve got my own back. 

“It just means we need to recognize What’s There.  If you face the fact that you have weak muscles, say , then you can do the right things and eventually become strong.  But if you ignore What’s There and try to lift someone’s car out of a ditch, what sort of condition will you be in after a while?.....The wise know their limitations; the foolish do not.”

I hope this helps you to understand sutra 2.1 a little more deeply!

Further Reading:

Hoff, Benjamin. The Tao Of Pooh.  ISBN: 0-525-24124-8

[1] Ahimsa- The first of the 5 Yamas

[2] Brahmacharya-The fourth yama-energetic moderation.

[3] Unless they’re a loon, or a cormorant, or a puffin, or penguin etc. ;)

[4] Poor things (Spanish)

[5] Prana- Energy that always swirls through you and everything in the universe.  Qi.