Tapas: I Fell Into a Burning Ring of Fire

So, if anyone was paying attention (I’m trying not to flatter myself unduly), you may have noticed that SIX MONTHS have gone by since I last visited the Niyamas. It was all gangbusters right up through Santosha, and then things sort of just petered out as I ran up against Tapas.

Perhaps you are thinking “Tapas- a delicious Spanish appetizer.” Provided that they are vegetarian, I’m all in for this kind of tapas! But that’s not what Patanjali is all about. Tapas- often read as “heat,” “austerity,” “catharsis,” “burning discipline” or “burning zeal” in your practice- well, I thought, it’s not really a problem for me. I’ve got more Tapas than I know what to do with. As you may remember from my personal experience with Brahmacharya, I tend to overdo. If presented with a problem or an opportunity of some kind, my instinct is to work quickly and urgently to resolve it. If that means, for example, that my back is tight, I’ll do 9 Urdva Dhanurasanas every day for a month to try to resolve it- even if my wrists and shoulders are killing me. Ah, tapas. “Feel the burn” indeed*.

So when I got to Tapas, I sort of thought, hm. What to say here? I mean, my problem is not lack of discipline. It’s lack of moderation. Which is why I’ve written two times about Brahmacharya-!

Yeah, I could tell you that you this Niyama asks you to be disciplined, it requires you to be focused and committed, that if you want physical, spiritual, or emotional growth, you must be willing to work for it. All of this is true. This morning, though, I’m seeing Tapas in a different sort of light.

In his neat and concise commentary on the Yoga Sutras, Alistair Shearer sums up Tapas in this way:

(Tapas)…is usually translated as “austerity,” and as a result the popular image of yoga is of a discipline involving asceticism or mortification. In fact, the word describes yoga as a process of transmutation, an inner alchemy that burns away the dross of imperfection.”

Hm. What if Tapas isn’t something that I generate myself internally- but something that’s happening to me as a by-product of my yoga practice?

During the past few years, I immersed myself completely in yoga- committed as fully as possible to living the eight limbs. In the Buddhist tradition, you might say that I began to live the Dharma. I took refuge (Buddhist vows), and things really, really started to change.

I hear lots of stories about people whose marriages and relationships with loved ones become complicated and fearful when one partner takes up a serious yoga practice. So it was for me. “You’ve got religion,” my ex would say. “You joined a cult.”

I know it was hard for him. It was a big change. I no longer wanted to hang around with people who weren’t nurturing me in some way. I didn’t want to eat meat or watch horror movies or gossip (as much). I learned to hug and touch people in a way I’d been afraid to do.

Initially, it was like a big honeymoon with me and my practice. I felt amazing in so many ways, more honest and open and lighter and happier. I was pretty sure I had found the key to navigating through life joyfully. I’m sure I irritated many people during this time. “Yay! Yogayogayoga!”

But what happens when that first pleasure falls away? When you come home from yoga class, or teacher training, and you see your home with fresh eyes, and you consider the life you’ve built, and you can no longer not look honestly at it? If the truth you’re feeling inside doesn’t match the life you’re living outside, you can no longer be happy with things as they are. And then the real Tapas begins.

“Never think that you will be able to settle your life down by practicing the dharma. The dharma is not therapy. In fact, it is just the opposite. The purpose of the dharma is to really stir up your life. It is meant to turn your life upside down. If that is what you asked for, why complain? If it is not turning your life upside down, on the other hand, the dharma is not working… the dharma should really disturb you.”

This quote by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is on my fridge, where it reminds me every day that  I asked for this life. I wanted to live honestly and truthfully. I deliberately stepped out of my comfortable box- marriage, job, security- and (cue the trumpets) it burns, burns burns! 

Tapas, then, is not an internal process. It’s the searing flame of transformation.

“Tapas is growing our ability to stay in the unknown and the unpleasantness, rather than run in fear. It is the willingness to be both burned and blessed.” –Deborah Adele, the Yamas and Niyamas

In my case, once I’d made the conscious decision to be awake to my life, there was no turning back. This is not to say it has been easy. I’ve cried a lot, of course. I’ve even tried to run and hide- but once I was in the ring of tapas, so to speak, there was no way back out. Not any way I could allow myself.

With every passing day, week, and month, things continue to change at a rapid pace in my life. I have grown much more comfortable with the discomfort. I’m not growing so much as I am being burned down to my essential self. When life is hurting, I am learning to look through the pain and ask myself: Why is this hurting? What is the lesson? What is important here?  How can this help me to serve?

The fire still burns- but there’s a relief, too, to the letting go into the flame. I’ll leave you with this poem by Rainier Marie Rilke. I love how it sums up how it feels when we step out of our comfort zones and into the painful flame of transformation.

The Hour is Striking- Rainier Marie Rilke

The hour is striking so close above me,

so clear and sharp,

that all my senses ring with it.

I feel it now: there’s a power in me

to grasp and give shape to my world.

I know that nothing has ever been real

without my beholding it.

All becoming has needed me.

My looking ripens things

and they come toward me, to meet and be met.

*Last month when I met my newest teacher and she watched me practice, she said to me: ‘Some people I have to tell to work harder. That is NOT a problem for you. You are working much too hard.’

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