Many years before I was familiar with Yoga & Tapas, I recall observing the practice of discipline in every day living. For instance, my Father regularly changed the oil in the cars. He would tell me if he didn’t do it often the cars wouldn’t run properly. My Mom always insisted my Sister and I have our hair trimmed every 1-2 months growing up. Unwillingly I did it because she said otherwise my hair would get out of control, knotty and dry. I always noticed how my Grandparents went to church every single Sunday —even when they weren’t feeling 100%. Personally, I discovered the more I did something (roller skate, play piano, study a subject) the more I improved in the activity. As a kid, based on my limited life experiences, I remembering deciding consistency was key to everything in life. Now I think, as a future yogini in disguise, the practice of Tapas was unknowingly being cultivated within.
When I did my first yoga teacher training program in 2005, I remember we discussed the Yoga Sutras in length. At that time in my life I felt a lack of connection with the third Niyama in Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras: Tapas. I understood what it meant but I didn’t find it as important as the other ethical principles discussed.
My viewpoint has definitely shifted over the last few years. I now believe Tapas is foundational to the Niyamas just as Ahimsa is foundational to the Yamas. To fully progress, in what ever it is – creating loving relationships, learning to ride a bike, eating properly, abstaining from intoxicants, meditating, practicing Asana, Santosha, Saucha, etc. – everything in life requires consistent discipline. In fact, last year I had t-shirts created for my DC based mobile yoga business (abellaYoga.com) that read, “breathe, burn, be” on the front. Often people ask, “What does burn mean?” They usually try to guess before I’ve had a chance to respond. I’ve heard: burn calories, sweat, hot yoga, and intense yoga. In creating the shirts, I realized how important Tapas has become in my personal practice and life. So the burning answer to, “What does burn mean?” The simple answer: Tapas
Just as burn has many interpretations, Tapas has many translations. One of my favorite translations of Tapas is discipline. Discipline is a practice. And I believe it is at the foundation of everything we do whether one consciously practices yoga or not. In order to truly practice or accomplish something (whatever it is) and reach a state of peace and happiness in the process (whether it’s Samadhi or the perfect headstand) consistent discipline must reside at the core of the activity. Along with discipline, there is an element of faith and trust we must cultivate.
Developing faith and trust enables us to surrender to the practice of discipline. We may question, “Why do I need to keep doing this?” or “Will it really work?” These may be exit strategies to get us out of an uncomfortable situation/discomfort/burning sensation. What we learn is Tapas/discipline isn’t always pretty. In fact, sometimes it burns. Tapas teaches we often must do things we don’t want to do (like getting my hair cut regularly as a young girl) or sit with discomfort in order to eventually reach a better state of comfort or a new stage of growth.
Keep in mind, there are definitely times when questioning the action/discomfort is necessary. For instance, the adage “no pain, no gain” is true in the practice of Tapas (99% of the time). Yet through the various practices of yoga, one learns to live mindfully and be present in the pain. Being present in the pain enables one to know when to wisely back off to avoid injury or harm (the other 1%). It is in this “no pain, no gain” practice of tapas, that a strong sense of faith and trust is yet again required so we are clear as to what is present in the pain (and in our minds) as we are experiencing the situation.
Lastly, tapas/discipline to me is similar to shedding. It requires a mindset of letting go and trusting that the old ways of doing things are no longer of service. It requires us to change habitual ways of doing and thinking. In the midst of practicing discipline/Tapas, there’s space to keep burning/going or just to simply give up. If you give up, you often land back at square one. In asana if you give up after falling over, you will never advance to the next stage of the posture. If you get back up and patiently try again, you move forward and learn something new about yourself. The heart of the asana practice is to show up physically (discipline!), commit to being on the mat mentally (disciplined focus!) and practice from where you are in the moment (trust!). Another example is mountain biking. I’ve had to shed a lot of my limited thinking/beliefs about what I think I can’t do. If I give up on the trail, I’m carrying my bike more than riding it. So often when I begin to doubt myself, I tap into my yoga breathing & Tapas to get me up, down or through what looks like impossible feats (climbing steep hills, jumping logs, splashing through streams). Letting go/shedding my limiting thinking of myself has required a lot of trust & faith.
Today, whether I’m on my yoga mat or mountain bike, I know things flow better when I fully breathe and relax into the situation at hand even when it’s a little uncomfortable. I’ve learned to commit to me on my mat and bike so I can show up fully as me in my life, not just for me but for others too. I’ve also learned that faith & trust are powerful and stronger than fear, no matter how big the fear appears on the surface. I believe without discipline one remains stagnant in life –wondering around without guidance. Until one can commit to work through areas of stuckness/stickiness (whether in the body or in life), they’ll remain stuck. In asana, one remains stagnant in a posture – always wishing to be at the next level. Without regularly changing a car’s oil, as my Father taught me, it will one day die. And as with life, we either evolve (which requires discipline/Tapas) or die. I will conclude with a quote I recently stumbled upon by Dale Carnegie:
“Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.”