Yoga for difficult times: Tapas

Yoga offers ancient solutions to modern problems. But you could also say yoga offers ancient solutions to ancient problems, because when things go sideways in our lives, the themes are as old as the sun. Grief, loss, disappointment, illness, anger, pain, frustration, loneliness: none of these are unique to the modern world. Your girlfriend may have broken up with you over Snapchat, but there’s nothing newfangled about the heartbreak you feel.

In this series of blog posts, I discuss yogic practices that we can use to navigate difficult times. In previous posts, I looked at the five yamas: ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, and aparigraha; and the first two niyamas: saucha and santosha. Today I’ll be focusing on the third niyama, tapas (“TA-pas”).

Tapas can be understood as “discipline and austerity”. How can we practice tapas during times of difficulty? Here are some thoughts:

Yoga’s answer to keeping New Year’s resolutions: Up to this point, we’ve covered a lot of territory. We’ve looked at non-violence, non-lying, non-stealing, non-excessiveness, non-attachment, purity, contentment, and…is anyone else losing steam? I’ll admit, as author of these posts, with 7 posts behind me and 3 posts ahead of me, even I’m starting to drag my feet, and I’m devoted to the yamas and niyamas!

Enter tapas. Tapas is the difference between keeping your New Year’s resolutions and abandoning them on the third day. It’s tapas that keeps you from hitting snooze on your good intentions and pulls you out of your cozy bed at 5am to meditate or run or work on your novel. It’s tapas that makes you show up—not on Day 1 perhaps, but on Day 100 and Day 1000.

Feel the burn: The word tapas comes from the root Sanskrit verb “tap”, which means “to burn”. This can be felt as a physical burn, such as the heat of a hot yoga practice, or a mental/emotional burn, such as the heat of craving a muffin on day two of giving up carbs. In both cases, the heat of tapas rises up to burn away what you no longer need, whether it be toxins in the body or unwanted habits.

Tapas in difficult times: When life is good, your tapas practice may be all about writing your blog or nailing your handstand. You identify a goal and go after it, cultivating tapas to help you overcome obstacles, like doubt and distraction. But when life is difficult, tapas is also invaluable.

To draw on a personal example, I leaned on tapas during my four years of treatment for late-stage chronic Lyme disease. It was four years of remembering to take medicine 6 times a day, of a brutally restrictive diet, of side effects, of detox sickness, and of symptoms flaring unpredictably. Ultimately, it was the restricted diet that burned the hottest for me. I was under strict orders to eliminate gluten, sugar, yeast, and alcohol from my diet. My diet was prescribed to me, and the prescription changed based on the medications I was on, so when changes happened, I had to adapt quickly. I would go from a low-fat vegan diet to a low-carb high-animal-protein diet overnight. Needless to say, I rarely ate out! I brought my own food to gatherings and spent hours squinting at labels. I was hungry all the time. And I can honestly say, it burned! It burned to miss out on my son’s birthday cake, year after year. It burned to toast celebrations with water when others were toasting with champagne.  It burned to be hungry with delicious food all around me. But a single goal sustained me throughout those years: I wanted to be Lyme-free, and I wanted it more than I wanted to stop the burning.

Practice discipline: Fortunately for me, I am, by nature, an unusually disciplined person, and I admit to enjoying temporary, self-imposed austerities for a good cause (like saving money for a big trip). However, I think most people can benefit from inviting a little more discipline into their daily routine. Think of something you know you need to work on, but you haven’t managed to tackle. Maybe you want to cut back on alcohol or get out of debt, but the burn of breaking habits has always scared you off. Cultivating tapas means changing your relationship with the burn. Rather than something to be avoided, recognize the burn for what it is: an incredibly productive fire of transformation. Let the heat of tapas burn away what you no longer need and leave you lighter and stronger!

Like any practice, it’s much easier to develop a practice of tapas when things are going well. That way, when life becomes a struggle, you already have the habit in place.

How else can you practice tapas in difficult times? Let me know in the comments section below.

Image © 2017 Erin Bidlake

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