Tapas Seeks to Fill What’s Needed

Gentle Yogis have completed 683 days of daily Gentle Breath Practice Chair Yoga. Congrats to those who have completed a day, a week, a month or many months of practice.  

January was the eighth month of daily group study after the practice. This month was a fascinating, challenging, and often revelatory exploration. We’re on the third Niyama, which is called Tapas, usually referred to as self-discipline. In his book, Nourishing The Teacher, Danny Arguetty refers to it as dedication. He writes that Saucha (purification), the first Niyama, helps us gain the clarity of a pure mountain stream. This clarity helps one discern what is needed. That discernment invites us to dedicate our time, energy, and efforts to practices that will fill the need. We benefit from dedication (Tapas).

We don’t have to go far to recognize what our need is:  to unite body, mind and spirit. Yoga  (union) invites us to become fully human, fully alive, by dedicating ourselves to prana, our vital life force. All the Yamas and Niyamas are oriented to serve prana by removing obstacles to the flow of prana. Tammy from Florida writes, “I find that Tapas brings me back through all the Yamas and Niyamas that we have studied. What does self-discipline look like if I’m being kind to myself, if I’m being honest with myself, if I’m not stealing, overdoing it, or being overly possessive?”

The Challenge

Tapas is also referred to as heat. There is a physical heat that comes from the yoga practice. Sometimes a flush will arise simply from beginning to breathe deeply. Sequences are designed to warm the body, the ligaments, the tendons, and the muscles. 

There is also a heat ignited when commitment challenges preference and desire. The friction at this crossroads burns away what is not needed, burns away obstacles to new growth. The choice is between habit or choosing a well-considered alternative.

A showdown may occur between sattva (pure energy) and the cravings of rajas or tamas (high energy and low energy). Will I choose tapas or temptation?

Heat Transforms

A member of Gentle Yogis from New York spoke of heat as a necessary ingredient to transformation. Think of dancers and athletes who spend a good deal of time warming up and stretching before they practice their routines and building their skills. 

Tapas can also mean staying with a process, like grieving. Yvonne, from Pennsylvania poignantly shared that after her husband passed a few years ago, well meaning friends encouraged her to make a point to get out, concerned she would sink into isolation at home. So, Yvonne made a point to get out, do her thing, teaching and connecting. The return to an empty home was painful. Before long, she realized that what she wanted was to be at home, to stay in the thick of it, being with the difficult feelings as well as the sweet ones. Then the pandemic hit and we all had to stay home. Over time, little shifts occurred. Yvonne, re-painted some rooms. She began to put some of the quilts she makes and her photography up on the walls. She moved some furniture. Now, she comes home to a space that feels like her. 

Other unexpected blessings emerged during the early pandemic including the daily morning practice and community time. The Breath Practice is a way to start the day in a positive way; it is an every day anchor for many. Yvonne dedicated herself to this practice, nearly every one of those 683 days. She has committed to this self-care and connection in sacred space to begin every day, where we listen and share how we were all making our way through the uncertainties, the restrictions, the changes, the anxiety, the losses.

Moments of Choice

Emily in New York, a member of Gentle Yogis who is a poet, master-of-language, master of resetting one’s mind-set, coined the word, “tapastunities” or  “taportunities,” for the moments of choice. Those moments ask for discernment, honesty, kindness and compassion.  

Managing Our Lives

We are predominantly householders (not ascetics) balancing many commitments and responsibilities. Our lives include responding to the needs of others, being reliable and “playing well with others.” Amidst any commitment to spiritual practice is the need to manage our lives as best we can. 

Commitment to regular practice may have to yield to other in-the-moment needs. The need might even be the physical body. A yoga sequence may need to be adjusted to care for injuries or a new condition. There may be a need to rest, or a need for space, to re-group from overwhelm. The practice may need to happen at a different time. 

When I’m at the crossroads of commitment and desire, is the desire simply a weakness to cravings that threaten to undermine the strength of commitment? Maybe it is weakness to cravings at first glance. Maybe with further consideration, the desire is signaling a genuine need. Messages from within that are necessarily translated by the mind are not always articulated clearly or with insight the first time. The true meaning can be lost in translation. The cranky protest wanting to curl up on the couch or under a blanket may be a legitimate need to retreat for a little while, gather energy and return refreshed, perhaps sooner than the mind would lead us to believe.

It’s a Choice

The transformation that tapas yields can be the result of a catharsis or tensions rising to a toleration point. Cindy from Ontario read from pg 137 of Debra Adele’s’ book, Yamas and Niyamas, “when heat brings us to the boiling point, two choices we have are…to break down or to break open.  We can’t prevent these times of catharsis in our lives or know their shape or outcome, but we can prepare ourselves for them through our daily practice, through building our ability to stay in unpleasantness, and through the small, daily choices we make.”

Cindy said, “At the time I first read this, it was back when I felt like I was struggling a bit. And I thought, you know, there’s a wholeness to ‘staying with.’ Going through all these experiences and ‘staying with,’ I realized that the word catharsis used to make me unsettled.  And now I see that it’s a gateway.”

Emily relates, “I’m being with myself in a different way with the increased awareness of tapas. I’m noticing when I choose, consciously or unconsciously, whether I’m staying in or giving in. But the bigger part is that whatever I do choose, I’m noticing my scale of compassion. That’s what’s coming out of it, noticing how compassionate I am being if I am staying in the heat, and how compassionate I can be if I’m giving into something that’s not as beneficial.  So, this one is really big for me, great for me.  I appreciate it very much.”  

This brings us back to the principle of letting our choices be experiments. Make a choice. See what the effect is. Be as honest with yourself as possible. Sustain your commitment to your life force. And make a new well-considered choice if adjustments need to be made.

When I Can Witness, I Am a Little Bit More Free 

This study of tapas has underscored the importance of compassionate self-observation. Emily also shared, “The practice of building a strong witness is so important, because then I’m not alone in “the neighborhood” of my mind.  I have my witness available if I choose to shift into it.  It’s changed relationships in the way I reply to people or respond to people or my own self. It’s huge.  Every day it makes a big difference.”

The witness is a consciousness where there is freedom of choice.  Where we can see more clearly what we’re doing, see more clearly what’s happening.  And in that freedom of choice, we can embrace self-inquiry. 

We get there by steadying the mind, by heightening focus. It’s an Indiana Jones thing, where we focus on one point over and over, and then there’s a moment when the degree of  steadiness is such that I don’t have to stay focused. In that moment a new realm opens its doors, like I found the right key. The right key is a level of steadiness in the mind that is a gift of grace from regular practice. Then I am abiding in the sanctuary of the witness – non-reactivity, clear seeing and freedom of choice. Choice unencumbered by habit or pattern. Ben shared, “I do the practice every day and once in a while stillness finds me.”

Trusting this Process as an Inquiry

On another day this past month Barbara from NY read more from Deborah Adele’s book (pg 138),  “Somewhere we forget that we had to learn how to walk, like young birds had to learn to fly. We forget how many times we fell.  We forget that things take practice.  Ray Charles was asked later on in his career if he still practiced and prepared for concerts.  He replied that he played scales every day, because when the scales were in his fingers, he could play anything.  Barbara pointed out the significance of asking herself, “what am I practicing for?” 

What Am I Practicing For?

Barbara continues, “This has been my most challenging Niyama.  I felt somewhat overwhelmed, trying to focus on where to start. Of course, I learned that it was the heat – staying with it… having the strength… I found that with this Sangha, with the daily practice, I have found the strength and the courage to stay with uncomfortable-ness. I’ve found my way through. Why AM I practicing?  Because it feels good… it feels right… I don’t have to analyze it. It’s a practice…it takes time. For me, I’m staying with the practice, because I want to find and be my true self. I want to embrace that. I don’t know what more you could ask for. The rest will just surface.”

Another sangha member described the struggle she was working with; her illness was preventing her from being able to support the needs of her family the way she felt was needed and the way she wanted to. We explored how our commitments have to be honored in the context of what our energy can support.  The old saying, “Put on your own [oxygen] mask first” came to mind. This takes self-compassion. [Note from Joyce: Rudy revealed to the group that he intended to cut down on coffee this month and how he needed to do it gradually to be realistic about the effect on his energy, to be kind to himself and not have an energy crash. He is down to one cup a day.]

The Gift of Life

A community member from NY shared, “a teaching by Trungpa Rinpoche that he gave in a lecture many years ago, has stuck with me during this whole study of Tapas – that the fire & the dedication & the falling & the coming back is somehow based in compassion, the gift of this life, and in the teachings that come to us.

He said, “Out of compassion, the teacher gives a teaching, and out of discipline, the student attends to the teaching, and if that discipline is strong, there’s a moment when the compassion and the discipline meet.” Compassion and discipline have met in our practice community (sangha). Shirley in North Carolina described how showing up for the practice as often as she is able creates a sense of stability for her and she declared to the whole sangha in the chat that day, “You are a wonderful place to be.” 

Next Steps

Next month we’ll discover why Tapas is considered the first leg of the tripod of spiritual practice and we will begin to explore the second leg of that tripod. We hope you will join us. You can begin anytime.  There are no particular requirements for strength or flexibility for the Breath Practice Chair Yoga class and you can stay silent and keep your camera off for practice and community time following. You are welcome to share, ask questions or comment if you feel moved to do so. Hope to see you soon!  

If you read all the way through to the end of this blog post, you can be entered in a drawing for a prize! We are trying to gauge the interest in these blog posts, so please email joyce@gentle-yogis.com with the subject line “I read the Tapas blog post” and let us know if you came here by way of the newsletter or a Facebook or an Instagram post and you will be entered in the “I-read-the-whole-Tapas-blog-post” drawing. If your name is pulled out of the hat on February 13, you will get your choice of a handmade deluxe corduroy yoga strap or a free Immersion class with Rudy. Please do not tell others about this offer or encourage them to read the blog post if you wouldn’t have otherwise. We want to know how many people organically found their way here and read through to the end. Thank you.

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2 Responses

  1. Yessss… I made it to the end :)- my second round, and so glad I did. The blog definitely helps bring the teachings together. Instead of pushing through, in a quiet moment over a cup of Matcha, I was able to savor the reading. Thank you! Ellen

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