TAPASYA: Stoke the Fire
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras 2.1: Tapah svadhyaya Isvara pranidhanani kriya yogah
“A burning desire must fuel your discipline. You must make the effort to continuously study the subject. You must devote all of your efforts to the Supreme Self. These are the actions to be taken to realize yoga.” Translation: Sharon Gannon
“Accepting pain as help for purification, study of the spiritual books, and surrender to the Supreme Being constitute Yoga, Union to the Supreme Being, in practice.” Translation: Sri Swami Satchidananda
I remember one day many years ago when Swan Michelle posed a question to our yoga class. I was sitting perched on my blanket and yoga mat at the Mandir, ready to listen. It was the middle of summer and extremely hot outside. It seemed like a miracle that for once I was not late to class. As part of her dharma talk, Michelle asked us, “Whoever said that life had to be easy? Who said that all struggle was bad?”
I was surprised. Who? Well, me, for starters. I believed that challenges were unpleasant and “bad” and that the goal of my practice was to get me to a point where I was free of struggles, so that I could finally be happy.
Hearing Michelle say this was eye-opening. I realized that I’d been operating under a false premise of happiness. “Struggles” were bad because I had one day subconsciously agreed that they were. I was placing unnecessary (not to mention impossible) conditions on my own happiness: conditions of ease and comfort, the absence of conflict and challenge, nothing ever getting in the way of my yoga practices, and so on.
Tapas is the Sanskrit word for purification through heat, pain, struggle, or discipline. Tapasyā is the generation of that heat through our own efforts and practices. We feel tapas when we are in a challenging yoga pose and our entire awareness is focused on the present moment because of the energy required. When we exit the pose, we feel the reward of our effort. Tapas is a vital part of our yogic practices, and it is the first step in Master Patanjali’s three-step path towards achieving Yoga, or Union, in Yoga Sutra 2.1: Tapah svadhyaya Isvara pranidhanani kriya yogah. Just as fire purifies, the heat of tapas clarifies our awareness. We need this clarity to see and embark upon the next two steps: svadhyaya, study of the Self and study of scripture, and Ishvara Pranidhanani, surrender to and confidence in the divine order of our lives.
Of these three steps, tapas is the hardest for me for practice joyfully. Like many of us, I often do all that I can to avoid hardship in life, steering away from conflict and confrontation, seeking the comfortable and easeful path.
However, there is a great wisdom in the ordering of all of Master Patanjali’s many lists, and he is right to mention tapas first. We all experience hardships. The heat of tapas provides the fire that transforms those hardships into tools that can aid us along our journey. Tapas is like a magical, alchemical fire into which we can throw our suffering and turn it into gold. A yogi seeks to find opportunities to stoke this fire wisely so that she does not become weak, passive, apathetic, or lazy. Tapas help us remove the craving for things to be other than they currently are, so that we can instead accept what is.
Tapas is also one of the five Niyamas, or personal observances, of the yoga practice. Practicing tapas as a Niyama ensures that we will not be too easy on ourselves or get complacent. It means we recognize that the road will be long and will require perseverance, rigor, and self-discipline. According to Swami Venkatesananda, tapas “simplifies life and purifies the heart.” What we offer into the fire to be burned up is our selfishness, apathy, and ignorance.
We cultivate tapas and continue to stoke the fire when we make choices that may not be the easiest but we do them because we know they are worthwhile. I wake up very early almost every day to ensure that I have time to practice meditation and pranayama before starting the rest of my day. This is tapas, because it would be easier to just stay in bed. I choose to do it because the benefit of my meditation practice is so much larger than what I would get from sleeping in. Committing to a regular asana practice or to eating a compassionate diet, picking up trash from the sidewalk rather than walking by it, bringing your own bags to the grocery store—all of these are examples of things that may be easy to ignore and challenging to adhere to but we choose to do them anyway, despite the extra effort, because we know the outcome will serve us more than the alternative.
We also experience tapas during true, uninvited struggle in our lives: loss of a loved one or a job, illness, breakups, moments of depression or fear. During these times, we use tapas to draw upon our strength and to remember that suffering can be a catalyst that will transform and purify us if we allow it to.
Practiced in isolation or with too much aggression, however, we risk our tapasyā becoming dry and severe. Bringing joy to our efforts of tapasyā ensures that within our extra effort, we hold a seed of sweetness. In a challenging yoga pose, for example, you may hear the teacher remind you to soften your gaze or to lift the corners of your mouth. We can use the tools of mantra, seva (selfless service), and gratitude to remind ourselves to carry lightness in our hearts and hands as we do our work. Doing so reminds us that contentment is available to us at every moment, even in moments of struggle.
On your mat this month, be observant of how you respond to your asana practice when the body gets physically challenged and heated up. Is your tendency to avoid this sometimes uncomfortable effort altogether and skip straight to savasana? If so, perhaps a little more discipline can be applied. Is your tendency to meet effort with aggression, pummeling through the postures even when you might need a pause? Perhaps you can return to full, slow breaths, soften, and practice self-compassion. Poses like backbends, arm balances, and standing poses tend to invigorate the body and create heat within. Honor this summer’s heat by committing to a consistent yoga practice, fueled by your desire to experience happiness and freedom. Balance your effort with moments of repose and cooling. Consider attending a variety of class styles this month with a recognition of your tendencies. If you gravitate towards only vigorous practices, attend a slower class this month, like Restorative, Slow Flow, Subtle Body Slow Down, or Beginner’s. If you tend to crave slower practices and avoid rigor, consider attending a more energetic class, like Swan River Open, Jivamukti, or Advanced. A balance of both will keep the inner fire nourished.
Our struggles will never go away fully, and as Michelle reminded me that day, that is not all bad. Our struggles can be great teachers. We should not place our happiness on hold for the day when life is finally stress-free, because we will be waiting for a very long time. But we can adopt practices of discipline in our lives to make sure we are prepared when challenges arise, and we can use our challenges as opportunities for transformation. We can create space for discomfort in our lives, because this is where growth happens. Embrace the quality of fire this month and let yourself experience the fuel of tapas. Stoke the fire with your practices, accept the heat that they generate, and let them transform you.
“Mental strength comes by tapasya, accepting pain. Then pain is no longer pain but is joy, because we have realized the benefit of it.” Swami Satchidananda
Written by Laura Hasenstein