Tapas – Not Just Tiny Spanish Food (My Transformation #2)

Tapas, the third of Patanjali’s Niyamas, means, in a very general way, austerity. Not the kind of austerity born of suppression or denial, but a kind of self-discipline motivated by love; love of self, love of family and friends, love of the world, if not the worldly.

This is a concept I have been considering lately, mostly while dragging myself out of bed at 6:30 each day to do sets of kapalabhati, force my always stiff, always short, always screaming hamstrings through surya namaskar a and b, utthita trikonasana, parivrtta trikonasana, utthita parsvakonasana and my mortal enemy, the pose that seems to hate me most of all, parivritta parsvakonasana.

I have wrestled, practiced boxing, muay thai, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and judo for many years. I’ve, on more than one occasion, trained until I’ve thrown up. I’ve been choked unconscious, dislocated fingers, torn my ears open, and otherwise damaged my body in countless ways. Why did I do this to myself? Tapas?

Hardly. I did it out of a strange urge to push myself beyond what I thought I was capable of. If I collapsed, got sick, died in the process, I was willing. Determination, grit, willpower – I am confident that I have these qualities. What I was lacking was Tapas. I wasn’t doing all this out of a sense of self-love, of improving myself as a human being, and certainly not to improve the lives of those around me. It was more like a cathartic ritual in pain endurance; 50 Shades of Working Out.

This is not Tapas.

Does intense exercise have physical benefits? Of course. Can enduring soul destroying, nausea inducing physical experiences have mental benefits as well?Yes, I believe they can. It is beneficial, from time to time, to destroy yourself in such a way as to lose one’s sense of self, of the relentless, chattering ego.

But still, this is not Tapas. Intention matters, and tapas is done out of love and respect for yourself and others. Whatever practice constitutes your Tapas, be it yoga, cooking, or perhaps learning to play an instrument, the focus should be on steady, daily improvement done because you love and want the best for those with whom you share the world.

What does this have to do with my yoga transformation? Well, transformation might sound like a great undertaking, but it is accomplished through slow, grinding, often imperceivable steps. As the Japanese say; kaizen – gradual self improvement. You might not notice every day, or even every month, but slowly, you are transforming. Tapas is the key; the discipline of a daily practice. This, then, is my current journey in yoga, and the means, hopefully, that my transformation will become manifest. I continue in the struggle to remind myself that there is a line between self-discipline, and self-destruction, and I’m not practicing self-love by leaping across this line at every opportunity. I’m not there yet, but I’m confident I’m getting there.

So, as I haul myself out of bed each morning before the sun has risen, I stare bleary eyed at my pull-up bar, kettle bells, running shoes, medicine ball, I’m doing my best, sometimes, to say no. Today I’m not destroying myself. I’m going to practice yoga instead, and in doing so, hopefully cultivate some Tapas.

–          Michael Thompson / 200 hr. YTT Weekend Warriors