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How Ashtanga Yoga Helped Teacher Erika Halweil Through a Life Crisis

Find out how YJ's May cover model Erika Halweil tapped the power of tapas and "came home" to Ashtanga Yoga.

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The generally effortless rhythm of my life—and my yoga practice—began to shift in my late 20s. When I was 29 years old, going through a painful divorce, I was forced to make a new home for myself and my 18-month-old daughter (our home was in foreclosure, as I was one of the many affected by the big mortgage crisis of 2008). I no longer felt supported by my daily asana and pranayama practices. For the first time, my senses seemed clouded and dulled. Instead of coming to the mat care- and pain-free, I found myself overwhelmed by the activity in my mind and the discouragement in my heart—and I was distracted by an unfamiliar fatigue and achiness.

Coming Home to Ashtanga Yoga

Fortunately, fate guided me right back to my mat. I had already been teaching yoga for nearly a decade at this point, and I had been exposed to Ashtanga Yoga on several occasions. But after I had been strongly influenced against it by one of my most beloved teachers, I had reacted to it with aversion and judgment. Yet, at this particular moment in my life, this practice felt like home. I appreciated the quiet. I was soothed by the even rhythm. I felt supported by the detailed structure.

In this system, you use your breath to link postures in a precise order, and you use your gaze to rest your attention in a specific place. With daily practice, I realized very quickly that asana practice is not so much about the various postures that come and go, but rather how we utilize our even, continuous breathing and steady gaze to stay engaged in action and sustain focus. When we practice in this way, we can more productively greet the mild anxiety that often comes up when we try new and challenging things—ultimately learning how to observe and respond rather than judge and react.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Our bodies can distract us with aches, pains, and cravings; our breath can be shallow, erratic, and labored. And our minds are usually wild with thoughts—jumping all over the place—and often riddled with fear. How can you simply drop into the practice and steady your breath and mind, regardless of how you are feeling or what has happened that day?

When my inability to focus and my tendency toward distraction became too profound, I realized that I needed to get out of my head. Instead of following the movement of my mind, I directed my attention to my senses.

See also Up for Challenge? Try This Creative Ashtanga Sun Salutation

Tapping Into the Power of Tapas

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali explains that the key to mental purification is tapas—disciplined effort, which produces a cleansing heat. When one’s mind and body are purified through tapas, the heart is free to shine.

Tapas is our willingness to use body, breath, and mind to begin an ungluing process—to make a sacrificial fire of ourselves. 

Tapas is our willingness to use body, breath, and mind to begin an ungluing process—to make a sacrificial fire of ourselves. This fire can be uncomfortable, so tapas also refers to the ability to cultivate and sustain the capacity for the hard work that helps us overcome challenges and setbacks. One of the ways yoga helps us practice this discipline and create the friction and subsequent heat required for change is by giving our senses something to focus on so they don’t run wild and tear our minds apart.

Asana (relating to our sense of touch) are designed to soften us and help us release fear, pain, and doubt. In this system, we are encouraged to remain still, without fidgeting, for the length of the posture. This resistance to fidgeting requires thought and continuous effort and creates heat. We breathe through the nose, with sound, into the entirety of the rib cage, chest, and back, while the mouth remains closed. This structured, even breathing (relating to our sense of sound, smell, and taste) also requires thought and effort and adds to the fire we are building. The breath is a constant reminder that things come and things go, and resistance to this is futile.

Our sense of sight in yoga is supported and strengthened by the gaze. We are encouraged to rest our eyes softly, in one place, to help focus the mind. As we help our sense organs to focus, we burn away distraction and become more sensible and more sensitive. This has an effect on our relationship with the world. We begin to cultivate discernment that will help further our spiritual pursuits through better choices.

It was the clear structure of the Ashtanga practice; the explicit, immediate goal of cultivating deep, purifying heat; and clear instruction to consciously direct all of my senses to being present that was most liberating as I dealt with the challenges of my late 20s.

Burning away distraction and becoming more sensible and more sensitive has an effect on our relationship with the world. 

The heat that I cultivated brought a youthful suppleness to my body. All of the details and support allowed for freedom from the heaviness of my mind. The relief I received on the mat allowed for an effortless return to my enjoyment of sacred texts, pranayama, chanting, and meditation practices. Very soon thereafter, as is always the way, the dark clouds passed, and I was left with a deeper understanding of why we take the time to practice each day—to make ourselves ever more receptive to the divine gifts all around and within us. 

See also Master Paschimottanasana in 6 Steps with Erika Halweil