Tapas


Fire Throwing

YS II.43 kaya-indriya-siddhir asuddhi-ksayat tapasah

Zeal to evolve spiritually burns away impurities, perfecting the body, mind, and senses, so that consciousness functions fully and seeks union with divinity.

Back in the small Colorado mountain town of Crested Butte, one of my first yoga teachers, Brenda Fleming, loved the concept of tapas. The way she said, “Zest and Zeal!” with such zest and zeal always mad me a smile. I’m smiling now, thinking of her tall, lean self and powerful smile. She personified tapas through her devotion to yoga and dedication to perfecting herself in the art and science of the subject. The stories she told of putting wedges between her toes to straighten them or holding a forward bend for half an hour to see what would happen were funny, and she told them with a laugh at herself. But they also made a teaching impression. 

On her first month-long study at the Iyengar Institute in Pune, India, she watched BKS intently in the afternoon open practice session, and she copied his practice knowing that she shouldn’t. My memory says that this happened on her first day at the Institute. When he got a bench, so did she, because she didn’t know how he was going to use it, and she really wanted to know. When he got two straps, so did she, knowing that she shouldn’t, and vowing that this was the last pose she would copy. But when he got a tall stool, she had to get one also, because, “Oh, my God, what was he going to do with that stool?” Then he walked over to her in his lion-like authority, and she became a tapas mouse. She was scolded for copying his practice. 

He asked her, “Have you been doing Yoga for 50 years?”

Tapas mouse answered, “No,” in a small voice.

“Then why do you think you can do my practice?”

“ I, I, I just wanted to learn.” 

Scowling under his large eyebrows, he stalked away, and she was officially “in trouble.”

Zest and zeal, by her definition. Burning devotion. Dedication to spiritual growth. All the definitions invoke fire and passion. This spiritual stuff is pretty tough material. We have created places of denseness out of our light bodies. And we have to dig our way back out into the light. It doesn’t come easily, not all of it. There’s effort, there’s work. However you define it, self-discipline or effort: zeal. We need to invoke our powerful selves, the passionate selves that we may not have been feeding, that we may have hidden away perhaps out of fear, perhaps because they aren’t  practical, not socially acceptable, they make us stand out. We are stronger than we know most of the time. It’s crises, often, that help us see who we are. Can we find these powerful selves, these fire-goddess selves, because we want to be whole, want to evolve and be the ones we were born to be, and not because we are in fear or in a survival situation? 

Another of my teachers suggested to me that, with large portions of our country on fire, we need to access in community, in communion, across the world, our inner fire. If we can balance the outer with the inner, we can help moderate the panic. We can create more balance. This is Karl from WildernessFusion, in an interesting conjunction of philosophies, telling me to pull up my fire. He calls it Joy. I am looking for my Joy-flower to flame. That has been my quest of late, and I’m finding it more complex than I thought. This month, I’ll be calling on the pranayama breaths that bring up the inner fire, such as kapalabhati, to help me counter a life spent mostly calming myself down and staying out of trouble. 

The key concept is balance. If I have too little joy, too little fire, I can try to generate more. I don’t need to burst myself into flame or burn myself out. But where can we find a middle world, where peace and silence create space for our passions? We care. We care so much! Call on our tapas. Help the world, help our selves!

The Yoga Sutra II.43 quoted above lists siddhi as one of the results of a practice of tapas. This references the abilities of a sage, in BKS Iyengar’s words, “a semi-divine being of great purity and holiness.” That state, where we throw lightning bolts around, takes some effort to attain! So each of us can ask, “How much fire can I find? How much can I evolve in this lifetime?”

by Barbara Myerson