Winter can be a dreary time of year. As daylight hours reduce, the serotonin production level in our bodies can drop. Since serotonin plays a key role in happiness, the lack of sunlight can affect our mood. At the same time, the cold weather can generally make us feel slow and sluggish – especially if we are spending more time in heated, indoor spaces.
All of these seasonal changes can affect your students in several ways – they may reduce physical activity, have less overall energy, and struggle to maintain a regular yoga practice.
During this slower, colder time of the year, it’s important to honor the body’s need for rest. However, it’s also important to balance this with dynamic, heating movement to keep health and happiness at optimal levels.
One of the best ways to motivate your students to get moving and beat the winter blues is to help them infuse different types of yoga such as incorporating tapas in yoga.
Tapas, one of the five niyama outlined in the 8 limbs of yoga, translates to discipline or austerity. Tapas invites us to cultivate a sense of self-discipline both on and off the mat; to burn away physical, mental, and emotional impurities that are keeping us from living a blissful and happy life. Through the burning away of what is not serving us (e.g., bad habits), we can pave the way for true transformation – in body and mind.
How to Encourage Students to Practice Building Their Tapas Yoga
Start by introducing the concept of tapas in your yoga classes. Tapas is about doing things that are beneficial for you, even when it feels challenging (e.g., finding your way onto the yoga mat on a cold day when you would rather stay warm in bed).
Have your students reflect on why they practice yoga – How does it make them feel? What benefits have they personally experienced from their practice? This is the “why” they can return to whenever they lose motivation to practice.
Reassure your students that every practice doesn’t need to be the same or last for a certain amount of time. A shorter, regular practice is often more beneficial than a sporadic, long practice. What’s important is having the discipline to step onto your mat regularly, whether it's for 15 minutes or 90 minutes.
Encourage your students to try different types of yoga (e.g., dynamic vinyasa, relaxing restorative, invigorating yin). This allows your students to tap into their intuition and vary their practice according to their needs on a given day. It’s important to remember that tapas in yoga is about self-discipline, which could mean opting for a gentler practice to honor your body, rather than pushing yourself to the point of injury.
Part of cultivating tapas is learning to listen to your inner wisdom, which helps to discern between what you are resisting (things that you can do but are fearful of) and what your body is intuitively telling you to avoid in order to protect you.
Adding Tapas to Your Yoga Classes
If you want your students to experience tapas in action, there are so many ways you can creatively integrate tapas into your yoga classes, helping your students connect to this energy on both a physical and mental level.
First, let's look at some ways to integrate tapas in yoga on a physical level.
Tapas to Invigorate the Body
Sun salutations are a wonderful way to warm up the body and allow your students to connect to their inner fire. There are many variations to choose from including the classic Sun Salutation A/B, as well as more accessible options that can be practiced in a chair.
Focus on the core
Anyone who has held a core-focused posture for even a little bit of time understands the burn that comes from igniting the core muscles. Having a strong core can benefit your students in so many ways, such as: improving stability, balance, and posture, preventing low back injuries, protecting vital organs, and boosting overall power.
Some core-focused postures you can include in your tapas yoga classes include:
- Plank or Side Plank
- Boat pose
- High Lunge with a Twist
- Chair and Revolved Chair
- Locust Pose
- Warrior II
Creating a dynamic sequence that integrates these postures can also help your students physically build heat in their bodies, which may allow them to sweat and release toxins from the body. Even holding a few of these postures for an extended period in a slow-flow sequence can help your students build warmth.
Focusing on the core also ignites the solar plexus chakra, which allows your students to connect to their willpower, confidence, and inner strength.
Challenge Your Students
Tapas in yoga is about getting out of your comfort zone, so don’t be afraid to challenge your students. Where possible, incorporate balancing postures such as dancer’s pose and warrior III or arm balances such as headstand and handstand. If these are too advanced for your students, you can always add an element of challenge to core yoga postures (e.g., plank with one leg lifted, tree pose with eyes closed).
Encourage your students to use props and the wall for support or to add difficulty where they can. What’s important here is not to execute the posture perfectly, but to encourage your students to try something new; it’s the best way to learn!
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Cultivating Tapas through the Breath
You can also build heat in your classes through various warming pranayama practices. These practices can be shared at the beginning, middle, or end of classes depending on when you want to give your students a boost of energy. This is both a warming exercise and a way to help your students practice discipline through breath awareness.
Right Nostril Breathing
According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipka, energy flows through the body in channels called Nadis. The Nadi that corresponds with the right side of the body is known as the Pingala; the solar nadi that connects us to our yang, masculine nature. It relates to physical activity, logical thinking, good digestion, and the generation of internal heat. For this reason, breathing through the right nostril is said to enliven the Pingala Nadi, creating an energizing effect.
Have your students bring their hands into Vishu mudra, plug the left nostril and breathe in and out through the right nostril only for 10-12 breath cycles. Then let them return to breathing normally and notice the change.
Ujjayi Breath (Victorious Breath)
This breathing practice involves constricting the back of the throat and breathing in and out through the nose. You can instruct your students to inhale and exhale, with their mouths closed, as if they are taking in air through a straw. This pranayama helps your students to challenge their respiratory system by reducing the flow of air and also builds heat in the body.
Kapalabhati (Skull Shining Breath)
This breathing practice involves breathing through the nose and pulling the belly in and up with each exhale (simulating a pumping action) while allowing inhales to be short and flow naturally. It stimulates the body physically, while also challenging the pace of breath helping your students ignite their inner fire.
Guide your students through this practice for one minute, and then return to regular full breathing such as dirga pranayama (three-part breath). Further instructions on teaching this practice in your classes can be found here.
Note: This practice can feel quite intense and should be avoided for students that are pregnant and those with high blood pressure or vertigo.
Tapas through Meditation
According to the 8 limbs of yoga, the practice of yoga culminates in samadhi, which can only be achieved through meditation. Although seemingly more subtle, a consistent meditation practice is a great way to invoke tapas in yoga – in fact for many of us, it can be the most challenging exercise of all to sit in awareness of what is arising and allow the mind to quiet when it’s ready.
Candle Gazing (Trataka) Meditation
This meditation practice involves the use of a candle to help draw focus inwards. Students can light a candle and allow their gaze to be on the flame of the candle, nothing else. This physical representation of fire helps your students build concentration, burning away distractions, while also connecting to the element of fire which is a key representation of tapas in yoga.
Solar Plexus Chakra Meditation
You can also help your students connect to tapas through a meditation focused on the solar plexus chakra. Have your students connect to this space in their body (just above the navel center). You can also incorporate the color yellow, the element of fire, or affirmations as a form of a mantra to anchor their concentration.
Overall, there are so many creative ways you can help your students beat the winter blues. By showing your students the various ways they can practice tapas in yoga, you also invite them to bring more discipline into their everyday life (e.g., diet, sleep, etc.) helping them stay healthy and strong throughout the winter season.