This month’s practice theme is much more conceptual than past monthly themes. Previously themes focused on postures or aspects of the human anatomy. However, without one key ingredient, our yoga practice remains in the dark. This ingredient is most elusive and it is known as “tapas”.
Tapas roughly translates as the internal fire of our practice. It is the commitment, discipline and steely resolve that we bring to our practice that help overcome the obstacles that come our way. What are these obstacles that can derail your practice? Obstacles such as apathy and indolence are characteristics that arise from our prevailing Gunas. Gunas are the states of being that influence our consciousness and give us certain characteristics and tendencies.
These states of being are identified from the lowest common denominator to aspirational as tamas, rajas and sattva. The lowest condition ,tamas, is described as a “dark and restraining quality” in Iyengar’s “Light on Yoga”. Often this state of affairs brings about lethargy, idleness, an absence of ambition and a sense of foreboding. It is often associated with the abyss and the underworld. Rajas on the other hand opposes malaise and is the energy that encourages productivity and activity. It can at its extreme edges bubble over into a hyper-energy that causes agitation, tension and anxiety. At the apex, sattva embodies a state of equipoise. When sattva is the predominant state of being, an individual is able to make decisions with clarity and with pure intentions.
The goal of yoga is to aspire and reach that state of equipoise whatever our dominating Guna(s) may be. We are all born with certain dominant characteristics that may be more tamasic or rajasic. In the context of a discussion of tapas, it is easiest to think about it in relation to the lowest Guna, tamas. As I mentioned earlier, common obstacles to a robust and vigorous practice can be apathy and indolence. These are tendencies that emanate from a tamasic disposition. Lack of motivation and idleness are characteristics that can negatively impact one’s life both on and off the mat. What is missing here is that internal flame, a desire; a “fervent aspiration”. This “fervent aspiration” is referenced in Book II of the Yoga Sutras as the “fire which gives life”, and “illumines” and the steady practice of which leads to a process of purification that burns away known impurities.
In simpler terms, tapas can simply be understood as the burning desire and effort to achieve a defined goal or purpose. It is the grit and determination that produces self-discipline and helps overcome negative patterns and routines. It is the process that builds character. Iyengar says that the whole science of character building may be regarded as the practice of tapas.
The physical practice of yoga helps build tapas through the connection of physical movement with the breath and mind. Yet, it is also possible to have a yoga practice that lacks this quality of tapas. I have seen this and I have experienced it myself. Practitioners fall into a practice for many differing reasons. Some for fun, others for physical wellbeing and rarely ever for a singular defined purpose motivated by deeper transcendental aspirations. This absence of a defined purpose can often result in an absence of motivation. Without motivation, a practice risks losing its potency over time.
This lack of motivation can also be due to a lack of faith or belief. When writing about this I was reminded of the story of The Invisible White Rabbit, a book of spiritual musings by Edward Hays. In it, a young spiritual aspirant turned up on the steps of a hermitage where he confronted a holy man. The young man asked “Why is it Abba, that some who seek God come to the desert and are zealous in prayer but leave after a year or so, while others, like you, remain faithful to the quest for a lifetime?” The old man replied with a story:
”One day I was sitting here quietly in the sun with my dog. Suddenly, a large white rabbit ran across in front of us. Well, my dog jumped up, barking loudly, and took off after that big rabbit. Soon, other dogs joined in, attracted by his barking. What a sight it was, as the pack of dogs ran barking across the creeks, up stony embankments and through thickets and thorns! Gradually, however, one by one, the other dogs dropped out of the pursuit, discouraged by the course and frustrated by the chase. Only one dog continued to hotly pursue the white rabbit.”
The story is meant to illustrate the spiritual quest and the white rabbit, a metaphor for God. In many ways, we can draw parallels between our yoga practice and the story of the Invisible White Rabbit. Why did the other dogs give up the pursuit? For the simple reason that those dogs could not see its prey, the rabbit. Not able to see its prey, they gave up. The motivation dissipated as quickly as it appeared. Why do some pursue yoga and give it up as quickly as they started whilst others remain devoted practitioners for a lifetime? The reason for this may also be tied to motivation. And what might cause a lack of motivation might be a lack of faith in three key areas – a lack of faith in our own selves, a lack of faith in the practice itself ( i.e. that the practice will not deliver the desired results or in some cases may be perceived as being harmful ) and a lack of faith in the messenger or teacher. When faith is strong in all three areas, so is the practice.
What causes the flame of the practice to be missing may largely be dependent on what stage of the yoga journey you are at. A practitioner who has recently embarked in her yoga journey may not have a great deal of faith in her physical ability. Over time with a consistent and physically intense practice, that practitioner may start to get stronger and more able, thus resulting in greater belief in herself. Through dedicated practice, she begins to stoke the flame of the practice. Over time, she may experience doubts about the practice, perhaps not advancing to the degree that she had hoped for, possibly even attributing blame on the teacher or the system itself. The intensity of the practice drops along with the consistency of the practice and it becomes riddled with doubt. This scenario is common and when it happens, the practitioner needs to confront with honesty the obstacles facing the practice in order to continue successfully along her journey. When existing doubts are resolved, this renewal of faith can help fire up the practice again.
The outer work of yoga was never meant to be done without the inner work. However what stage of our yoga journey we are at often determines whether more or less outer or inner work needs to be attended to. We don’t always start the chase knowing or understanding what the target is. Yet, with dedicated practice that is sincere, heartfelt and consistent, we may start to build a flame that could start the journey of a thousand journeys leading ultimately into the heart space. When that happens, you will be faced with many doubts and questions, but this also means the process of the inner work has begun and you are well on your way.
So why tapas for the month of February? For the simple reason that after a break over the holiday season, most of us will be feeling somewhat sluggish, both physically and mentally and will be needing to get a little bit fired up again. As such, this month our sequences will help gradually build up the intensity of our physical practice. Intensity requires emotional commitment, mental focus and effort beyond one’s comfort level. These aren’t simply abstract ideas. There are identifiable techniques and steps that one can integrate into a practice to help bring about such a paradigm. On the mat, breathing strategies and setting an intention at the start of the practice are options available to the practitioner to help heighten one’s experience. Off the mat, meditation, or simply quiet time focusing on breathing can help enhance your practice by bringing a sense of calm into everyday life and bringing this state of mind onto your mat. Finally, being honest about what you need to work on most in your practice. This usually means an area that you most likely shun and don’t practice regularly because it makes you uncomfortable. For some it might be backbends and for others, inversions. Making a commitment to spend time on that side of your practice that you feel least comfortable doing requires an effort beyond one’s comfort level. When you start to overcome any fears or insecurities as proficiency improves, you will begin to experience a sense of renewed faith, hence igniting the flame of your practice all over again.
Level 1 Hatha Yoga Fridays 10:30am and All Levels Hatha Yoga Sundays 9:30am @ Bodyneed Sports Clinic, 17 Maidstone Rd, Ponsonby. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact 021-833966 for further details and bookings.