Tapas and the Fire of Transformation
“Self-discipline burns away impurities and kindles the sparks of divinity.” –Yoga Sutras
Coming back to my blog right now feels like an out of the blue phone call I’m making to an old friend with whom I haven’t spoken in a long while–it’s bound to be a bit awkward, I’m feeling kind of nervous, and I have lots of anticipation and hopes for reconnection. I’m asking myself, Why did I get stuck with writer’s block since last spring? Why has it taken me so long to write a post about this third niyama?
Before we go any further, I reckon a review of some of our yogic philosophy is in order. If you are new to this blog, or you need a refresher on the Eight Limbs of Raja Yoga, or if you’re just saying to yourself, “What the what? Niyama?”–please read this post. Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere…you can just come on back over to this here post when you’re ready.
Okay, now that we have an understanding of what the niyamas are, let’s talk about the third one, tapas–which isn’t those yummy little dishes you get in swanky Mediterranean restaurants–here we’re talking about discipline, fire, zeal, and the ability to overcome inertia so that we can transform.
Which can explain quite nicely why I got stuck on this particular niyama and never wrote about it since I taught it in my group yoga classes back in the spring time. I, my friends, have a regrettable lack of discipline when it comes to writing. Sure, I can blame it on my kids, explaining about the higher order thinking needed to formulate thoughts into concise sentences that will really get my point across clearly–and how the kids’ seemingly endless pile of needs and the verbal onslaughts used to communicate those needs will derail every train of thought I try to put on the tracks…but the simple truth is, it has taken months to work up the motivation and the courage to plant my butt in the chair and attempt to write about something that continues to elude and perplex me, something that I really don’t know too much about. Yet.
Okay, maybe I do know something about discipline. I show up to teach my yoga classes. I show up for my kids and for my marriage. I (kind of) show up for the housecleaning and cooking, and I’ve maintained a daily meditation practice for over two years now. Regardless of how much discipline I may exhibit in other areas of my life, somewhere along the way, something kept me from just diving in and writing about tapas. Maybe I’ll figure out what happened by the end of this post.
Ahem. Moving right along…In terms of our asana practice, tapas ignites when we embrace the physical work in our postures. We feel the intensity as the muscles heat up, our skin begins to sweat, and we have to dig a little deeper into our reserves of will to hold the pose for a few slow breaths. Beyond the physical work that happens–the burn of the muscles as we sustain a challenging pose–there is the work of training the mind to just be still, to allow little thoughts, habitual neuroses, and painful core beliefs to be burned away under the lens of intensely focused awareness. Finding this place of mental stillness can be very challenging–nay, seemingly impossible–for so many of us, and I think this is one of the reasons that vinyasa yoga has become so popular in our western culture. Disclaimer before I go any further: I am NOT saying that you can’t find inner stillness in a vinyasa practice! I am saying that it provides a comfortable place for many of us to explore the physical practice of yoga because the moments of stillness in the poses, if there is any stillness at all, don’t last very long.
In vinyasa yoga, we flow from pose to pose to pose with few pauses–whether we are warming up with sun salutations, or practicing a sequence of standing poses, or stretching on the floor–it’s very rare for me to attend a class where the teacher has us STAY in a pose for more than a few breaths. This kind of practice dovetails nicely with the multitasking mindset that many of us have adopted to survive in our fast-paced, productivity-oriented world. With this kind of mindset, we are rarely fully aware of what we are doing in this moment, because we are always planning what we are going to be doing in the next moment. A sense of urgency arises that follows us everywhere, even onto our yoga mats. The idea of going to a slow-paced yoga practice where poses are held for minutes at a time might strike fear or great aversion in the hearts of the bravest among us. A slower practice gives us too much time to notice what is unfolding beyond the sensations of the body. In a slower practice we might have to–GASP–become aware of our own minds. Now don’t get me wrong here–I would be one of the first people to stand up and shout the praises of vinyasa yoga; I love fluidly moving and breathing in my practice, it feels like a graceful dance, so magical. When my heart rate rises, and my skin sweats and I feel the heat in the body reminding me of my aliveness, it’s exhilarating beyond words.
Just permit me, if I may, to suggest that slowing down in our practice, and being in our poses for a bit longer, could help us to stoke the fire of transformation, the tapas, that wants to burn more brightly if only we could give it the chance. Once we’ve settled ourselves into a pose, let’s take warrior II for example, the work in the body will become apparent only after holding the pose, really being there for a moment. Then, once we perceive the work in the body–the effort of our shoulders to keep our arms extended, the effort of our legs to bear the weight of the body–then the real work of harnessing the mind can begin. It might start with one question: How long do I have to be here? Then it might go on to say Gosh, we’ve been here a while. Surely it’s time to go on to the next thing. And then it may begin to panic, or whine, or complain. My arms are so tired! My legs are beginning to feel sore. Can’t we get out of here already? The mind might even go so far as to say things like, I don’t like this teacher so much. This class isn’t fun anymore. If you become aware of these thoughts, you’ll recognize a juicy opportunity to awaken!
If we take the time to become really familiar with this inner landscape, then we’ll cultivate the capacity to transform regardless of the pose, or the context, in which we find ourselves. All of Life–all of it!–can become our yoga practice. This, in my view, is where the flame of tapas is most needed. The zest to awaken to the inner self, the discipline to keep trying, the enthusiasm for a life lived with greater compassion for ourselves and others. In the end, our asana practice is one of many tools that we can reach for in our toolbox for awakening. It is a wonderful tool, a powerful tool, and one for which I hold much respect and gratitude. But it isn’t the be all end all of the yogic path. Once we’ve mastered the body, fine tuned it so that it can be still, now it is time to master the breath, and then our power of concentration. Once we have learned to concentrate, now we are ready to meditate, to sustain a focus for prolonged periods of time. And once we become adept at meditation–BLISS just happens, because we awaken to the truth of our interconnectedness with ALL THAT IS.
What will keep us on this path, from the beginning of awakening, to the peak of bliss? Tapas, of course! Those new to the yoga practice come in to class full of hope, anticipation, nervousness. Maybe they are hurting, healing from an injury. Perhaps they have heard a lot of buzz about yoga and are just curious. Maybe there was a Groupon deal, or a friend or family member has dragged them along. Regardless of what brings them there, results can come quickly, startlingly in an asana practice. Just one class can be deeply transformative as we are put in tune with the utter aliveness of the body and the beautiful music of our breath, and for one moment we feel at home in our own skin. The shared energy of all the practitioners in the room can be a very powerful source of upliftment. Some students have walked up to me after their first class, full of energy, saying, “WOW! THIS IS GREAT! I CAN’T WAIT TO COME BACK!”
A lot of those students will come back, but after maybe a month or so, or perhaps a few months, the novelty begins to wear thin, and with it, the enthusiasm to return to their mats. This is where tapas comes in. It is the discipline to come back, even when it’s cold and dark outside, and you’re tired…even when you have many other important responsibilities tugging at you and laying claim to your time. The flame within that was lit in your practice must be given the fuel to keep burning, and consistent, regular practice is that fuel.
Any time you feel resistance to doing something that you know needs to be done, and then you just do it–this is tapas. Whenever you’ve found yourself in a mental, physical, or emotional rut, really weighed down by a certain situation, or life in general–and then you do something different, against all odds, making a change–this is tapas. Whenever you’ve known you needed to write a blog post, and you’ve dragged your feet and told yourself all sorts of excuses and never got around to it for months and months, and then one day, you just sat down and wrote the d_mn post–this is tapas.
Ahh yes, so back to that again…why did it take me so long to write this post? I think I needed to mull over what tapas really means to me for a while. I needed to chew it up, swallow it, and digest it thousands of times before I had an inkling. I also needed to put it into practice for myself, in many different areas of my life–like emptying the dishwasher, or folding the laundry, or picking up the kids’ toys (AGAIN), or making myself go meditate even when I was so freakin’ tired I could barely keep my eyes open…I needed to awaken early many more times to find my practice waiting for me, to rekindle every day the flame of my desire to change–I needed to live this discipline before I could speak to its transformative powers.
And have I transformed? Yes! And here is the blog post to prove it. (Breathe huge sigh of relief, cue the Hallelujah chorus.)
Coming next: Svadhyaya, the fourth niyama. Maybe now that I’m on fire with Tapas, I might blaze this next one out before the end of the year. Think warm thoughts for me friends. Until the next time, please feel free to contact me with your questions or comments! I love hearing from you, love knowing you’re out there, so stop by and say “HEEEYYYY!” when you get a minute.
Is there a specific area of your life where you could benefit from fanning the flames of transformation? What makes you feel most alive with enthusiasm? How do you express your zest and zeal for life? Do you have any particular techniques for overcoming inertia when you get stuck or feel down in the dumps? Do you have a practice that you attend to daily? Please share!