Burn, Baby, Burn-Tapas
Tapas and the next Niyama (Svadhyaya) are my two favorite Niyamas. In the past four years, I've spent a lot of time cultivating these practices in my life, perhaps that is why they are so special to me. The translation of Tapas is zeal, austerity, discipline, and the purifying flame. Tapas is what fires me up, literally, and inspires me to keep practicing, to keep studying, to keep learning, and to keep teaching. One of the ways that I have preserved myself from burnout in the last 9 months, has been to ground myself in my practices and routines. Making sure not to overcommit myself with private clients and public classes. Always looking for balance and moderation (Brahmacharya.) I've kept a daily routine that has not wavered for years now, since I understand how it aides me to stay grounded and healthy. I've found comfort and stability in all aspects of my yoga practice from my daily morning meditation to pranayama practices to my physical asana practice. During this time, I made sure to schedule in some R&R for two mini-vacations to the ocean. To me, my work is to live a yogic life; to stay disciplined, but not too rigidly, always striving for balance with an inner desire to uncover more.
Tapas is being able to accept the pain and discomfort of becoming who we are meant to be. All the experiences good or bad, shape us into who we are. Life tests our ability to bounce. This is where Tapas steps in and asks . . . can you allow your suffering to be your teacher? What has your suffering taught you? Will you learn from this or will you continue to behave with the same patterns? Try to think of Tapas as the discomfort we experience through our life lessons, which can be transformed into spiritual growth. Four years ago, I began to question everything in my life. I realized many of the things that I had, no longer were as valuable to me, as they were before. Some of them friendships that felt one-sided and behaviors that didn't align with who I was becoming. After I let them go, I didn't feel sad nor did I miss them. Many of these things were the root of my suffering. I offer an example to show how Tapas revealed to me an event that would later become a driving force to help sexual abuse survivors through yoga. As a child, I was molested by my Dad's girlfriend's son (basically my step-brother.) Deep inside me, even at the young age of seven, I knew he was not well, but I chose not to hate him. Instead, I forgave him. At seven years-old! Choosing not to hate this man, freed me from pain and suffering in that moment and the future. I knew there was no benefit to me walking around like a victim. My molestation is a defining event in my life, one that I tried to downplay for years. Sometimes, I think about how different my life could be if I had chosen to hate him. Would I have ended up using hard drugs, living on the street, or allowing my molestation to destroy my life, like it has for so many others? Nothing can ever change that event, but how I choose to frame it can. Instead of seeing an abused four year-old little girl, I see a 39 year-old sexual abuse survivor.
Tapas reveals our inner desire and drive. I believe we all have an innate desire to improve ourselves, to be better than we were yesterday and last year. Many people think it's through possessions, titles, and other material items. This is why the Niyamas are geared more towards spiritual maturity and growth . . . there needs to be a desire to uncover who we are at the core, underneath all the layers we use to protect our egos or our false selves. My inner fire, my Tapas, drives my practice to reveal more of myself. It's like peeling back layers of an onion. Inside the Yoga Sutras, Reverend Jaganath Carrera compares fasting to Tapas. We suffer temporarily for the day as we fast, but we receive the benefits of "purifying the body and strengthening the mind." The mind will use many tricks to keep us from practicing our Tapas through depression, anger, or resistance. Tapas reveals to me my resiliency; my ability to keep going and to stay dedicated to my practice because I understand the value of it. Every once in a while the ego kicks in and says, "You don't need to meditate today, you did that yesterday and the day before . . . you can take the day off." But my will drives me to sit. To ignore the resistance of the ego. This is Tapas.
I know I write a lot about me choosing not to drink alcohol anymore, but it has been the biggest victory, lesson, and gift in my life because it challenged me to change in ways I didn't think possible. Giving up alcohol challenged me to develop discipline and will-power. In my very early alcohol-free days, I wasn't confident that I would be able to resist drinking when we went out socially. Eventually, with continued support from my husband and the inner fire that challenged me to stay alcohol-free, won. I can't remember at what point when I realized I was never going to drink again, but I felt empowered. I knew I finally had the discipline and will-power that I lacked before. This one change led to many other positive changes in my life because I knew I had the will-power. I had always lacked confidence in my ability to stay disciplined in certain aspects of my life - like eating healthy, working out, or sticking to a budget. But when it came to schooling, earning degrees and credentials, I was always very determined and motivated because I knew it would lead to independence (results.) My focus was the end result of degrees, credentials, and letters at the end of my name. Now, my life and practice aren't based on results. I have days when I can meditate easily and other days my mind is so distracted I don't feel like my brain stopped churning for one-second. It's not about how well I can meditate or execute a "flawless" asana practice, it's about my dedication and consistency to the practice of yoga. THAT is Tapas.
I found consistency and stability in my yoga practice which has helped me in other parts of my life. I keep showing up, I keep doing the work, but I'm not attached to the results . . . most of the time. Developing discipline is not easy. It takes work. It takes Tapas! That inner desire to uncover all that I am and all that I can be. Many years ago, a friend's Mom said to me, "Oh, KC, you're always reading those self-improvement and self-help books," which felt more like a back-handed compliment. I laughed it off as I do when I don't have a clever comeback. Later, I thought to myself, yes, I do read many of those kinds of books . . . how is that a bad thing to want to improve yourself? Those that are not on a journey to improve themselves, may not understand you. But don't worry about them. Allow your life to be an example of how to live your yoga. And remember it's a practice, not a perfect. We do the best we can because there will always be more teachers and more tests.
Be well. Stay well.