Last week, we learned about the second niyama, called samtosha (contentment). We learned the importance of accepting where we are in any given situation, so we can more easily focus on the present moment. Basically, we learned how to let go of expectations and be OK with where we are RIGHT NOW…both on and off the mat.
This week, we’ll explore the third niyama, called tapas. In Sanskrit, “tap” means “to burn”. Remember that the niyamas are the internal rules of conduct you should be following in order to live in the best way possible for you. So when you think about tapas and how to apply it to your life, it equates to self-discipline. It’s that burning desire to achieve a goal, and then to have the self-discipline to actually achieve that goal in a way that will bring out your true self, free from attachments.
Think about this in terms of your yoga practice on the mat. If you’re not working hard enough, that’s when it’s time to start practicing tapas. We need to be progressing toward our goals in our poses if we are to achieve a stronger and more flexible body and mind, and this requires effort. However, it is important to remember not to try to force things, as it could end up doing harm. It’s important to balance tapas with samtosha (effort with contentment). When you bring ego or pride into it, then it’s no longer tapas. B.K.S. Iyengar says that true tapas destroys all impurities, which balances the body, mind and senses so that consciousness can function freely.
From a physical standpoint, you can see tapas in action when you bring intensity to your yoga practice. Think about the heat you build on your mat when you practice your Sun Salutations, for example. I don’t know about you, but after two rounds of Sun Salutations, I am usually sweating and can feel the increase in my heart rate. Building this heat in the body and working up a sweat creates a purifying action. It helps cleanse the body, removing the toxins, so that we can experience improved health and wellness.
But self-discipline involves more than just what we do on our yoga mats. After all, what good is all that hard work on the mat if we keep up with the “dirty” habits (i.e., how we eat, how we breathe, how we hold our posture when sitting down) we’ve got? When we can take what we learn on the mat in terms of breathing, alignment and cleansing to start making better choices in our lives off the mat, that is the true practice of tapas.
This week, when you’re practicing on your mat (whether you’re with me in class, or doing your own practice), think about how to practice tapas. Can you increase the intensity of your practice on the mat without losing the big picture? Meaning, can you move to the next level in at least one pose in such a way that it’s purifying in not just a physical way, but in an enlightening way as well? You’ll know if you’ve gone too far if you pay attention. For example, if you’re forcing your breath or holding it, if your alignment is compromised, or your thoughts are all over the place, those are indications you need to back off.
Feel the intensity from the heat you build as it works its way through your body and mind. Don’t make it too easy…to practice tapas, you need to be challenging yourself, working hard to get to the next destination on your journey. That’s where the self-discipline comes in…can you keep up the practice when things start getting harder? I bet you can. In fact, I know it!