I did a workshop recently with the wonderful Katy Appleton and, something she said really resonated. She said yoga was about ‘Being the best version of ourselves’. Yoga is about thriving in all areas of our life, not just on the mat. In its fullest expression, yoga is both a transformational toolkit and a measuring stick that allows up to weigh up the efficacy of our choices.
Tradition states that although we come into life full, as we move through life, make choices and experience things (some helpful and some not so helpful) our ‘Vital Essences’ (of which there are three) flux and at times, will run low. Furthermore, that it is the depletion of these master forces within the body that creates the gap between what we ‘want’ to experience in life and what we ‘do’ experience.
One of the things that I love most about the science of Yoga is that as a science, it is systematic and pragmatic. Yoga clearly outlines the hurdles we will face on the path and then the practical solutions to overcome them. No wishy-washy, airy-fairy nonsense. Ambiguity has no seat at the sacred table of Yoga. The stakes are far too high for that; our vital health is far too important.
In the West, we often think of ‘health’ as ‘the absence of disease’, but Yoga has a different take on it. The word for health in Sanskrit is ‘Swasti’, which means ‘to be established in your Self’. Self with a capital ‘S’ – the biggest version of who we are. To the Yogi, this is health; to be rooted, grounded and operating from the highest version ourselves. Swasti, health, is defined by the following 3 elements:
- Stability: mental and physical.
- Immunity: in regards to both inner bacteria and the negative energy of others.
- Emotional health: which speaks to the state of our relationships with others and also our self, including our capacity to easefully return to a state of joy, inspiration, motivation, gratitude and enthusiasm. It’s not about shutting down our emotions. Health is not holding onto them.
The sum of these three signifiers creates Swasti and is an indication that our three Vital Essences have been restored. The Vital Essences are Prana, Tejas and Ojas
Prana is the master guiding force within the body, coordinating our breath, senses and mind. It is responsible (among other things) for our adaptability. There’s a saying in yoga, “We’re only as good as the amount of Prana we have access to”. When our Pranic tank is full we ‘flow’ more easily, we can skilfully navigate change. Prana acts like the neutral space in a gearbox that allows the gear shifter to move between the gears. We always have to move through neutral to get from first to second, second to third and so on. We need Prana to gear shift, which is handy because in case you didn’t notice, life has a tendency to do that from time to time; shift gears.
Prana also governs our capacity to ‘take information in’. When we’re at ‘the end of our tether’, as the saying goes and the thought of one more email or car horn feels as though it will tip the mental stability scales, it’s a sure sign that we need a Pranic boost. Breathe!
Pranayama is the best way to build Prana, specifically working on increasing the length and quality of our inhalation and working with retentions at the end of inhalation. That’s the fastest way. Asana or the physical postures also builds it (although overdoing it can deplete it and doing it incorrectly can derange it). Time in nature is also a great way to build the vital force of Prana. On some level, even if we are not Yogis, we can sense how deeply healing that that is.
Tejas, the second vital essence is the subtle energy of fire and the transformative power at the heart of Yoga. Tejas allows us to metabolize life, to break down our experiences, digest and eliminate the waste and convert the knowledge gained into wisdom and maturity. Prana allows us to take information in, however whether we convert that information into nourishment is completely dependent upon our level of Tejas. These essences are the stuff life is made of and they work on all levels of our being.
Tejas is also the energy of will and vigour. It motivates us to change and inspires us to do whatever work needs to be done. Courage, fearlessness and insight all stem from Tejas and believe it or not, the most effective strategy for building Tejas…. is Silence. Control of speech is included under this heading as too much talking depletes our inner radiance. Great Masters say what needs to be said, but not more.
Concentration and focus practices also build Tejas. Many Yogis these days don’t like doing true Tejas-building work, known as Tapas. We think that sweating and jumping around and exhausting ourselves is Tapas… it isn’t. Tapas (the practices that produce Tejas) are the hard things we do that we really don’t want to do; like sitting still and being silent 😉
That is the deal – If we want more Tejas, then we have to cultivate a will like steel. No way to buy our way through or side-step around that one.
Ojas is the third and final essence. It is the energy-pool of our own pure vitality – the place from which we draw our vigour. Prana allows us to take things in. Tejas allows us to break it down. Ojas is the nourishment we extract – ‘Life minerals’. It manifests as our immunity and also provides us with stamina, stability, patience, peace, confidence and calm. Ojas is also the energy of protection.
Ojas as patience, peace, stability, stamina and calm is the framework and foundation for success in Yoga, behind the scenes protecting our practice and ensuring we don’t burn out. As the ancient texts proclaim, we have to stabilize the Moon (Mind) before we rise up the Sun (Prana). This is skill in action and the recipe for a vital life.
To build Ojas it’s important we minimize sensory impressions. Yes, exactly – get off your phone! Phones and computers deplete Ojas but Yin yoga, Meditation and Yoga Nidra are great tools to cultivate it.
One final suggestion; Bhakti or love builds Ojas. People who have a mate (the right mate) in their life live longer. So find someone to love!! Even if it’s a dog! Love builds Ojas 😉 Let’s share it!