Tapas: Who Let the Fire Go Out?


Oh, the Niyama of burning enthusiasm, austerity, and self-discipline how often you are misunderstood by us, well-meaning yogis.

When I began to write, this blog so many stories came to mind. The definition of Tapas can seem daunting. Austerity: which can be translated into severity and sternness (makes me think of German bankers and the Eurozone personally). Asceticism: which can be translated into a renunciation of physical pleasures and material possessions for spiritual purposes to achieve enlightenment or oneness great for those who live monastic lives but not entirely practical for those of us who live in the day to day of getting by. Self-discipline! That’s quite the task? Meditation: the sweet ride to Samadhi not so daunting for some and harrowing for others. How can we apply the spirit of Tapas as secular yogis?

It’s important to understand our culture and where importance resides. Those of us that live in the United States our society, especially surrounding movement tends to default to “no pain, no gain.” Go harder! Go longer! And if you die doing it…it will be an interesting obituary. Of course, I am making light of the situation, the thing to remember is Yoga in it’s origins is a spiritual practice, in the Western World, it tends more toward the physical.

The purpose of the Niyamas is not to punish, but to create the space for connection to oneness whether that’s the universe, nature, your fellow humans or god(s). It’s through our disconnection that suffering trickles in. We can see this now with war and how communities of color are suffering. I think for us, burning enthusiasm and self-discipline are accessible and can create a connection, asceticism not so much.

The Yoga culture here tends toward physical austerity. How many times in a class have you heard, “The yoga pose you hate, is the one you need to do the most”? Our puritanical roots run deep. However, have you ever been to a class where you see people striving to push as hard as they can into a challenging pose and wind up injured, maybe you have even been this person? I know I have.

When stoking the fire of our burning enthusiasm, it’s important not to take a beneficial fire and turn it into a destructive fire. When we overdo, we cannot sometimes do for quite a while. And where is the service in that? When stoking our internal flame, and our enthusiasm it is important to do so in a self-disciplined manner. Not too much, not too little but a nice even flame that burns away all that does not serve metaphorically, not physically through injury.

So, if Tapas doesn’t mean go harder and faster what does it mean? We all have our baseline, the movements we like, and the part of practice where we find challenging. For example, I am a fiery person my inner fire burns brightly, I have had this challenge my whole life to keep it contained. I know a fast and core centered practice is my default and what I enjoy most. I know this is also, not where I am stoking the flame. If I always defaulted to my fiery practice then it would be like throwing lighter fluid only on half of my bbq, yeah it would burn quickly, but the other side may never light. If I were attempting to grill a ton of vegetables, to do so, I would need an even and consistent fire.

So my work resides in slowing down, through yin yoga, and restorative. To rest in a pose, to embrace stillness. It doesn’t mean that I can’t practice the way I enjoy the most, but it does mean that through meeting my challenge I can create more longevity in my practice.

Tapas is what continues to get us to the mat, to cultivate we have to meet ourselves where are challenges are. That means if you are like me and fiery, full of energy to slow down. If you find yourself always gravitating toward a mellow class mix it up from time to time with a challenging class to keep your passion and flame alive. If you tend to avoid some poses, opening yourself up to try a new shape. Creating the challenge allows you to burn away negative thought patterns.

The work first begins in the Yamas. Think about it… Ahimsa (non-violence) not pushing yourself too hard into a pose, Satya (truthfulness) being honest with yourself regarding where you need the work to stoke your flame, Asteya (non-stealing) not stealing the joy away from your practice by mentally beating yourself up for where you “should be” in order to keep the flame aglow, Brahmacharya not throwing your life force and energy in a direction that is counter productive and snuffs the flame, Aparigraha non-grasping attachment to the outcome of your practice just being where you are and allowing the breath to get you to where you need to go.

Secondly, the work comes in the form of the first two Niyamas. Saucha (cleanliness) keeping your yoga clothes clean and being kind to your body with words and actions, and Santosha knowing that where you are right now is enough and when you advance that will be enough as well, you are enough as you are. When you embrace your practice with balance, appreciation and awareness you can keep your inner fire bright and burn away the blockages, opening yourself to greatness.

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