Bringing the Niyamas to Life – Tapas

At the last workshop we looked at the third niyama, ‘tapas’, which is often translated along the lines of ‘fiery discipline’.  This is the quality that helps us to keep going when things become difficult.  We all reach a stage in our practice after the initial love affair fades when our relationship with yoga is challenged – often when we suffer our first yoga injury or we reach our first seemingly unattainable posture, or our practice just seems to plateau and progress is no longer visible. Well, I would argue that this is when the progress is really beginning, as long as we can stay with it through the challenge – if we can apply tapas and weather the storm, then we will come out the other end stronger and wiser, knowing ourselves better.

However, this is easier said than done because we humans do so love to follow the path of least resistance and, when the going gets tough, it may be very tempting at that point to say, ‘nah, actually I don’t think yoga is for me,’ and walk away from it, onto the next thing.  But, like with anything, if we keep doing this, and we keep avoiding any discomfort, then we will never positively change and transform.  As I said at the start of this newsletter, change is always uncomfortable; when things become awkward or unpleasant for us, this is often because our ego is under threat and is playing up, and therefore these times can be the most fertile ground for positive transformation, if we can just keep going and stick to the programme!

Yoga helps us to know ourselves better; to me it’s a wonderful, holistic tool that helps us on the path to deep inner knowledge, gradually allowing us to strip back layer after layer of illusion, going deeper and deeper towards the truth of who we are, from the gross to the subtle, from the body to the mind to the spirit, but all interlinked, never linear.  And, blimey, that is a tough path! There’s no place we can hide when we shine the spotlight of close inner scrutiny onto ourselves, and the ego doesn’t like this one bit! So, on this yoga path you can expect lots of unpleasant, uncomfortable periods – it usually means you’re on the brink of stripping back another layer of who you thought you were, to reveal a new layer beneath, which is closer to the truth of who you are.  To keep going through the layers, we need lots of tapas. It’s so easy to fall at the first hurdle. But, here’s some positive encouragement: tapas can be cultivated and will grow as you use it more and more, like a fire that is hard to get going but soon builds up to a raging inferno of energy!  So, each time we say no to giving up and we keep on trucking, then we add to our internal store of tapas and our own fire burns a bit brighter, helping us to blast through obstacles with more and more ease as we continue along the path. And this is helpful because, as our tapas grows and enables us to go deeper along the path, the obstacles do tend to loom larger, sigh!

So, again, we can use our asana practice to help us cultivate this niyama.  When the going gets tough in a class and you’re ready to collapse into child’s pose or, if you’re on your own at home, just sack it all off and turn on the TV, can you instead take a deep ujayi breath and fill yourself up with positive fiery energy, believing that you CAN do this, you’ve GOT this, and then carry on through the rest of the practice with fiery determination? Similarly, use tapas to help you breathe into and be fully present in the more difficult postures such as warriors and arm balances – don’t fear the discomfort, it is usually blowing a fresh wind of change through your body, mind and soul!

You can also design your own fiery tapas home sequences that include lots of plank postures (including side plank and upward plank), warriors, standing balances and arm balances – for inspiration you can always drop me a line.

One final word here – as with everything in life, there is a balance to be found.  Some of us need to cultivate lots of tapas because it doesn’t come naturally to us, whereas others have it in bucketfuls, and possibly need to rein it in sometimes.  The best thing to do is think of the interplay between santosha (contentment) and tapas – yes, keep being determined to stick to the path and burn through obstacles, but counter this by always feeling contented to be exactly where you are. A strange paradoxical state of mind, you might say, but such is life! Also, if you feel your own tapas stores are out of balance in either direction then hang out with or practise next to someone with the opposite imbalance and you will soon balance each other out!

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