New Year’s Resolutions, remember those? By the end of January, we’re a month into the year already, approaching the point where good intentions might be starting to ebb. So here’s how the yogic practice of tapas, the yogic ethos of ‘fiery cleansing’, can re-energise your efforts to bring your aspirations to fruition, and invigorate you, inside out.
Forget New Year’s Resolutions. And maybe allow those small plates of delicious Spanish food to take a side step for a moment… (you can have them back later) while we look at how an ancient yogic practice can help bring you closer to realising your highest self.
New Year, Same Old You?
The start of a new year is always a seductive prospect. Our collective faith in self-betterment usually has our minds whirring in early January, as we find ourselves either inspired to venture out bravely into a dry, cigarette- or meat-free month, make to-do lists, bucket lists, life-goal lists… or, fatigued by the constant pressure to improve on last year, resolving to make no resolutions at all and just continue on our own course, finding our own way. For those of us with self-reflexive tendencies, the start of a new year can be a perplexing time. Most of us want to move forwards and do our best; to be, discover, experience more. The real challenge for us all is making solid, sustainable, long-term positive choices. This is where tapas can help.
So, What Can Yoga Offer Us?
Undoubtedly a yoga practice can help you see more clearly where you are and where you want to be. Whilst self-acceptance in one’s present state usually has to form some part of any initiative to change, there is also a healthy vim and vigour to be found in really working for it, an energy and drive that can help maintain your momentum for those times when the going gets tough. Known for its thorough advice on how to follow a self-transformative path, the Yoga Sutras refers to this kind of energy as tapas.
Patatas Bravas Aside, What Is Tapas?
Tapas is one of the five Niyamas, or observances, which can, if adhered to, lead to personal development at a profound level. Some see it as an integral, ongoing step on a yogi or yogini’s spiritual journey. Tapas translates literally as ‘self-discipline’, ‘right effort’, or ‘internal fire’, and there is also a connotation of cleansing to it. It is through tapas that we find the energy required to change undesirable habits, adopt better ones, and see more clearly the truth of our lives amidst the (beautiful) craziness.
Different people will interpret it differently, but broadly speaking, tapas is a kind of resolve that runs deeper than any individual resolution – it is much more about attitude than result. Part of the wisdom of tapas teaches us that if you focus on cultivating the necessary mindset, habits and practices to achieve a particular goal, (rather than getting hung up on the goal itself), you are much more likely to evolve sustainably towards it.
So What Does Tapas Involve?
Tapas involves a willingness to work, enthusiasm, commitment and a sense of momentum to carry you through the ‘fiery cleansing’ which is its process. And of course the hard work itself. We might first of all think of this happening on the mat – through steamy vinyasas, perhaps, or long holds in challenging asanas.
The primary meaning of tapas, however, does not refer to work done on the mat, but work done internally, on the self. But given that the philosophy of yoga always plays out on the mat, we start to see that our attitudes in our asana practice are fundamentally part of our lives, just as our words and actions off the mat are part of our yoga practice. If we are willing to work; if we are enthusiastic; committed and conscientious in our practice, we may become so in life. And vice versa.
So How Do You Embody Tapas?
In the Yoga Sutras, tapas is presented as a method by which to purify the self of behaviours that inhibit us from living as well as we might. It’s worth noting that tapas is not a highway to achieving worldly goods, prestige, or any kind of life hack or shortcut at all – that is not what is meant by ‘living well’ here – but it is a route to inner contentment through the application of earnest effort.
Tapas can be hugely powerful – it can change lives. In fact, we might even say that making resolutions without tapas is a highway to nowhere – because unless we understand that the impetus for change must come from a place of deep willingness within, we sign ourselves up to the disappointment that usually is the result of externally sought change, either through desire alone; envy; fantasy; or a mix of all three.
There Are Boundaries
Tapas sits within the context of the Yamas and the other Niyamas, of course, which keep things in perspective. It’s all too easy for that fiery energy to get a little aggressive, especially if you’re a feisty type of person. Like anything, an excess of tapas isn’t good for you. Tapas can cease to be beneficial when one’s resolve to change comes from a place of hatred or violence towards oneself.
If you’re thinking ‘I must change because I am fundamentally not good enough as I am, or as I perceive myself to be’, and you pursue change aggressively as a way to punish the self you undervalue in its present state, you violate the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence.
You also stop being true to yourself (satya) and limit your capacity to practice contentment with your lot (santosa). In the grand scheme, you undercut yourself thinking this way, and your goals shrink further away onto the horizon. So the preparation for Tapas, you could say, then, is acceptance, truth, kindness towards oneself, from which threshold the power to transform is almost without limit.
What Does Tapas Look Like?
Tapas on the mat and tapas in your life are non-separable. Part of it is looking for the opportunities with which your life and your yoga present you in which you might practice it. Tapas looks like not giving up in the face of discomfort.
Tapas is being able to delay gratification by diminishing impulsive reactions which could threaten an overarching ambition. Tapas is seeking truth within oneself, committing to yoga’s request for self-study (svadhyaya) and then committing to letting that truth (satya) govern your interactions with others.
Tapas is having the guts to be really honest with yourself, the courage to stick to positive intentions arising out of that honesty, and then working to the best of your ability with respect for yourself and all beings to act in accordance with your positive intentions.
What Are The Rewards?
One way of looking at tapas is to see it as a process by which we can find our common humanity – life challenges us all, regardless of who we are. So if we as individuals can commit to living as well as we can – in earnest and with respect for the experience of all beings – we are also committing to living to the best of our ability for the collective.
This brings us to a kind of tapas known as sattvic tapas, which is where the practice of tapas starts to fall away from the ego’s attachment to results, and funnily enough is where the best ‘results’ may to be found. Sattvic tapas, which we feel when we feel connected, becomes a unifying kind of effort, which itself transforms the experience of hard graft into something joyful.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s commentaries on the Yoga Sutras call on the image of a lake to make this point. There are so many tiny waves on the surface of the lake; if each wave thinks of itself independently, it is being foolish and isolationist, because all waves rise and subside into each other only a short while later. If we think of consciousness in similar terms, individual lives occur as waves through an ocean, each rising briefly before falling back into the rest.
To practice sattvic tapas, then, is to work and yet to find solace in the knowledge that you are working with everyone else. When we work together and in the true spirit of tapas – with commitment, energy, honesty, and with fire in our bellies – anything is possible.
So much of it comes down to how you frame things, to your perspective. So instead of making a series of difficult-to-keep New Year’s resolutions, why not allow 2017 to be a year of tapas? Perhaps that way you can have your tortilla and eat it….