I’ve always thought of tapas, (the third niyama not the spanish appetizers), as it is most often defined: “burning or heating in order to purify.” So, of course, that brings to my mind a nice, sweaty yoga class where I those nasty toxins are released and in the end become more “pure.” While there is absolutely nothing incorrect with that literal translation or understanding, I have recently understood the concept of tapas in, what I feel, a more wholesome way. It’s just one part of the equation.
As a teacher, when I hear students’ breath get labored or see their faces contort as a result of the effort they are exerting, I want them to know that the struggle is for a good cause. This brings me to a different definition of tapas: “undergoing great sensation in service of transformation.”* This sensation we, as students, feel during a hard practice serves a purpose other than a mild form of torture. We are opening and strengthening the body in ways that it needs. Often, what is hard for us is exactly what we need to work on more consistently.
I guess that’s the bad news. The good news is the “in service of transformation” part. Tapas does not work alone. In order for it to have any real meaning, it must be accompanied by self-study, which you may know is svadiyaya, the fourth niyama. Clearly, the idea of tapas in an asana practice is easily digestible. “Okay, I’m sweating my arse off and working so hard in this lunge so that my hip flexors will lengthen. I never realized my hip flexors are so tight. I should stretch them more.” Burning. Purifying. Learning.
To make it more complex and universal, we can apply the idea of tapas to our world off the mat, where things actually hold a lot more gravity. For me, the clearest example of this is parenting. Talk about sensation-filled fun and agony and worry.
Before I became a mother, I never would have pegged myself as a “Tiger Mom.” I practice yoga. I’m the third of three children. I’m a Pisces. All this must mean I am relaxed and easy going. And, yet, I am one uptight mother when it comes to my children’s academics. I found this out quickly one afternoon when my oldest daughter finished her kindergarten screening and told me that she told the teacher she could count as high as eleven. The wind was knocked out of my sail entirely. She had been counting to eleven since she was 2 and could easily count to 100. What was she thinking?! Were the days when her preschool teacher told me she was one in a million over? Was she not going to Harvard after all?
Half of this is in jest, but most of it is quite true. I don’t think I’m alone in wanting certain things, the best things, for my children. Rationally, I know I cannot impose my will upon them, even when it’s as simple as imploring them to have some more vegetables. I’m not into force feeding. So this brings me to the last part of this equation: the fifth niyama, ishvara pranidhana. Very often it is translated as God or Master. Not being the religious type — at all — I prefer to think of it as something or someone greater than ourselves. Truly realizing that we cannot control everything, least of all our children, can be a tough lesson. Since my kids are so young, I’m still struggling with it. Yoga helps me to remember that I must, at some point, turn things over to a greater good or just some other little person who will make her and his own decisions.
While I truly feel my life would be far less fulfilling without the asana practice, it is nice to remember that this whole yoga craze of which we are a part truly has deeper meaning than the just physical practice. Patanjali’s sutra 2.1 tells us that this exact equation –tapas + svadiyaya + ishvara pranidhana = yoga.
*I’m not sure who to attribute this definition to aside from my teacher Natasha Rizopoulos, but it is very likely it comes from BKS Iyengar or Desikachar.