Let’s Talk Tapas

by Stacey

candlestoneSome could look at my yoga practice and say it was frivolous.

Seeing me reclining, propped up on cushions, covered in blankets, eyes closed, a peaceful smile on my lips, they might question my motives. I mean, really, shouldn’t I, as a curvy girl, be pushing myself hard to burn every calorie possible? Where is my desire for a yoga butt and tight, flat abs? Don’t I want to fit into those little bra tops and crazy patterned yoga pants? And shouldn’t I be striving for the ultimate pose? (BTW, I’m not even sure what exactly that is.)

The truth is, my yoga practice is my safe haven from all of that.

My yoga practice is free of judgment, guilt, and shame. There is no striving for perfection here. My practice is luxurious. Each posture is another opportunity to experience my body in a new way – the luscious feeling of muscles softening, unwinding, and lengthening. The chance to slow down and observe my thoughts. The time to be, just as I am, in a culture that is built on constantly trying to be more and better and new and improved.

So at this moment you’re probably rolling your eyes at what a pollyannaish approach to practice I’m espousing. I’m sure it sounds pretty sweet and easy – just roll out your mat, lean back on some blankets, close your eyes, and voila! you’ve reached nirvana.

If only it were that simple.

The Sanskrit word tapas, when used as a noun, is translated as heat or fire, and as a verb, means to hurt or cause pain. In some yoga lineages, tapas is conveyed as a discipline, similar to the ideology of “No pain, No gain”. In order to attain liberation, one must master their body and mind to overcome suffering, sublimating the body’s distress signals and ignoring intense feelings. Others approach tapas as a form of penance, atoning for sins of the past, which can create a sense of inadequacy, emotionally, physically, and/or spiritually. Both may easily foster feelings of disconnection from and betrayal by the body, especially for anyone with a history of trauma.

Swami Kripalu, for whom my lineage is named, expressed tapas as the feeling of friction that occurs when one goes against the grain. As a tantric hatha yoga practitioner, it’s my job to go against the grain, to experience and absorb the sensations that arise, and to act from the knowledge I receive.

Sitting in the discomfort of tapas, I become stronger and can apply that strength in all areas of my life.

But what exactly is the grain? We live in a culture of often jarring incongruence, and the information overload we experience on a daily basis is confounding. How do you know what to believe? How do you know what to do?

It is up to each one of us to choose for ourselves.

You are the only one who can feel yourself from the inside out. It’s not easy to go against the voice of our culture that expects us to be in perpetual motion, to the point of wearing wrist bands that count our steps and constantly monitor our heart rate.

My yoga practice teaches me to trust my instinct, even when my instinct tells me to lay on the floor, supported by bolsters and covered in blankets.

Because on other days, my instinct leads me to take a walk, or go for a swim, or dance my face off. Over time, my tapas has become the act of turning down the volume on the rather shouty committee that lives in my head, criticizing my every move and instead listening to that small, still one that seems to have a more rational view.

And that has made all the difference.

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