Tapas In Our Yoga Practice: Inviting in the Fire

Simon-ParkDetermination and a passion are descriptive of the Sanskrit word tapas. Tapas (austerities; discipline; literally “heat”) is one of the Niyamas (niyamas describe actions and attitudes that we should cultivate to overcome the illusion of separation and the suffering it causes) the fire that we create within our yoga practice that helps us burn through all of the heaps of emotional, mental and physical baggage that we have aquired along our lifes path.

I love this next quote, and do not know the author to which to give the credit…

“Behind the notion of tapas lies the idea we can direct our energy to enthusiastically engage life and achieve our ultimate goal of creating union with the Divine. Tapas helps us burn up all the desires that stand in our way of this goal.”

Tapas is not easy by any means. Nope! It is meant to burn through the ego. Trust me when I say, the ego definitely does not appreciate toppling over in yoga class or for that matter looking ‘foolish’ in any way shape or form! In fact the ego when bruised will usually take the form of anger. Oh yes, it’s true, yogis can get angry! For some yogis not being able to do a pose not only opens a can of worms it can turn into a tub full of snakes! (Make that hissing snakes) I once watched a student curse out a teacher and then turn to the entire class and call us a couple of unmentionables as well.

I had the pleasure of taking a class from Rusty Wells a few weekends ago at Wanderlust and he talked about being open, curious, and childlike. (And not in a terrible twos temper tantrum kind of way) He spoke about what was it like for you when you first began practicing yoga? You were cool, you did what the teacher said, you tried new things, you were willing to invite new poses in, new sensations, new challenges. At some unfortunate point alot of people become yoga “experts” (yawn) and put the brakes on their tapas, that fire that brings about transformation, growth and keeps the yoga love flame burning. Yoga is a relationship, you have to put the work in. You have to be willing to give, to burn and ultimately transform or the flame will go out. It requires everything that you have and then more at times. It will test you to your breaking point, because therein lies the beauty, the alchemy, the truth of who you really are. Beneath the frustrion, the anger, and after you’ve gone through your own ring of fire you will arrive at something familiar something real, and a person you can proudly call your true self.

What is Yoga?

I have decided to quote Ally Hamilton (owner of Yogis Anonymous where I currently teach in Santa Monica with her husband Dorian) this morning because I think that what she had to say is pretty brilliant!

Ally Hamilton on Yoga:

There’s been a lot of conversation within the Los Angeles yoga community of late, about what it is that constitutes yoga.

To quote Georg Feuerstein:

“all the various yogic approaches-and there are many-have the same overall purpose. That purpose is to help the spiritual practitioner transcend the ego-personality, or “lower self”, so that he or she may realize the “higher” Reality, whether this is conceived as the transcendental Self or as the Divine (God or Goddess)……They are all designed to lift the individual out of his or her ordinary perception of, and relationship to, the world.”

Obviously, the practice of yoga involves much more than the 90 minutes a person spends on his or her mat (although if someone is coming for the “workout”, I don’t care because I know over time all the other benefits will seep in!). Here are the eight principal limbs of yoga according to Patanjali:

1. Moral Restraint (yama), comprising nonharming (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), nonstealing (asteya), chastity (brahmacarya), and greedlessness (aparigraha)

2. Discipline (niyama), consisting of purity (shauca), contentment (samtosha), asceticism (tapas), study (svadhyaya), and devotion to the Lord (ishvara-pranidhana)

3. Posture (asana)

4. Breath Control (pranayama)

5. Sense Withdrawal (pratyahara)

6. Concentration (dharana)

7. Meditation (dhyana)

8. Ecstasy (samadhi)

If you are still reading, you are probably either a yoga teacher who doubtless studied these limbs during your teacher training, or a serious practitioner who should possibly consider the teacher training I’m co-teaching this Spring and Summer.

The point is, the physical practice is one-eighth of the equation. If you are not already, but wish to be, serious about your practice, the time will come when you will have to turn your attention to the other seven limbs.

It’s a way of life, a philosophy, a science, and an art. So this conversation about what constitutes yoga is interesting.

If we are simply talking about the physical practice, then any practice that prepares your mind for meditation (which is what the physical practice is intended to do), will suffice. What YOU need to accomplish a quiet mind is PERSONAL.

Some people need a vigorous physical practice (I fall into that category), some people need a more gentle practice. Either way, it is fine.

One trap I think we need to watch out for given our Western culture and its attachment to the external, is attachment to “the tricks”. Now, don’t get me wrong: for many advanced practitioners, an intense exploration of inversions and arm balances is exactly the right prescription to help us delve deeper into the practice of yoga.

Just do your very best not to make your practice ABOUT those tricks, or you will simply be strengthening your ego, not eroding it. By the same token, don’t assume somebody who puts a lot of emphasis on the intense physical practice is somehow not “a real yogi”. The moment you begin to entertain those thoughts, you’ve slipped into a place of judgement, which is probably fear-based and ego-driven. It is VERY hard to feel connected to everything and everyone around you when you organize your world as “Me” and “everyone else”.

Those are my thoughts for whatever they are worth. Having said that, you will probably need to explore to find the physical practice that is right for you. And hopefully you can respect that other people will need to do the same, and that some may need a physically different practice than yours, and that it is ALL GOOD as long as we are all heading toward the same place which is SPREADING THE LOVE.

Mad Love,

Very Wise words indeed!