When I bring up the topic of tapas, self-discipline, in class the faces get serious. And when I ask how their home practice is coming and how many have a daily practice, only a few hands come up. Then I usually follow by asking how many want a daily practice and most hands come up. So what’s stopping us? Is it lack of discipline?? Or what?
The word discipline in our culture is often associated with being restricted and losing our freedom, but in the old Yogic texts from India, Yoga is said to be a discipline of freedom! The origin of the word “discipline” means to train, and a disciple is a trainee. The main purpose in Yoga is to train the mind to become still and present.
Eckhart Tolle tells us in The Power of Now, “Not to be able to stop thinking is a dreadful affliction, but we don’t realize this because almost everybody is suffering from it, so it is considered normal.” He continues, “The mind is a superb instrument if used rightly, but wrongly, however, it becomes very destructive. To put it more accurately, it is not so much that you use your mind wrongly—you usually don’t use it all. It uses you. So we are kind of slaves to our minds and not really free. But Yoga is a discipline with postures, breathing, and philosophy that trains us to use our minds rightly and to turn the mind off when needed to give us true freedom to be present in the power of now.
The Upanishads, written 2500 years ago, tells a parable describing the mind being like a wild horse attached to a chariot. The chariot is our body, the charioteer is our intellect, the reins our mind and the horses our senses. The self, or true you, is the passenger. If the charioteer does not hold onto the reins firmly, the horses will try to go in different directions. One wants to go down to a water hole, the other up the hill to graze, and the third back home to the stable. The result is disharmony, chaos, and an unsuccessful journey.
It’s the same with our senses. We get ready to step onto the Yoga mat, but the cell phone rings and we run to answer. While in the kitchen we have a nibble, and on the way back to the mat, we stop to check incoming e-mails. Thirty minutes later we need to run off to a meeting and we have lost our opportunity to practice. On the contrary, if the charioteer holds onto the reins firmly, the horses can all run in the same direction harmoniously and create a successful journey and a successful Yoga practice.
The yogic discipline, tapas, is not an external discipline, something we “should do” or “have to do.” Whenever we say that we should do something, we are following external expectations, while inside are little voices rebelling and looking for excuses.
One of my first Yoga students in Bellingham 40 years ago told me, “It’s no good to should on yourself.” (Repeat 3 times.) Whenever there is a should, there is often a but. I should do Yoga, but I don’t have time. I should do Yoga, but I don’t have a good space. I should practice, but I’m too tired.
Instead, tapas is an internal discipline. It’s awakened by an internal experience that life is a gift and that we want to make the most of it , taking 100% responsibility for our lives. “Where there is a will, there is a way.” I want to do Yoga daily, and I will find time for it. I want to practice Yoga at home, and I will find space for it. I am tired and I will do relaxing and rejuvenating poses. Yoga teaches us to be our own drivers, to take charge of our horses and to follow our own paths.
We learn to tune into the needs of our bodily systems. The body has many demands and needs regarding food, exercise, sleep, work and quiet times. And our needs vary due to changes of season, occupation, the state of the body, and the state of mind. Instead of following external rules to fill our needs, we adapt and regulate the quantity and quality of our changing needs to create an orderliness and harmony within our own bodily system. It all takes continual awareness, training, and self-discipline. When we practice Yoga, we don’t practice mechanically doing the same poses with the same intensity every day. Instead we practice mindfully. Some days we might feel exhausted, weak, and worn out, and we balance our systems with relaxing, restorative poses. Other days when we feel low and unmotivated, we give ourselves uplifting series of sun salutations and standing poses. And if our backs are tender, we focus more on nurturing poses for healing.
There is tremendous power in doing our own home practice. When we are in class, we are following the teacher’s rhythm and tune. A weekly class is helpful to give us inspiration and guidance and to help us fine tune our poses. But it’s on our mat at home that we cultivate the power of tapas which carries over into all areas of life. Interestingly, the little points of alignment in each pose help to bring health to the muscles, joints, and organs. But they also align the mind into the present moment. When we lift the kneecaps, the mind becomes present. When the mind wanders, the kneecaps drop. So the points of alignment are like little mantras, or focal points, that train the mind to “be here now.” We also use the breath in each pose to train the mind. A regular pranayama practice (yogic breathing) is a concentrated and powerful way to train our “horses.”
But where are we journeying with the horses, and why are we doing our practice? My late teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar, says in Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, “Self-discipline destroys all impurities perfecting the body, mind and senses so that the consciousness functions freely and attains divinity.”
Tapas also means heat and purification. The more you burn something, the purer it gets. Each time you put raw gold in the fire, impurities are removed and it becomes purer with each firing. It’s the same with our Yoga practice. Each time we practice a pose we create an internal heat by going to our healthy edge. And we deepen the heat by creating dynamic actions, movements with counter movements, to stimulate circulation and cleansing. With the conscious practice of each Yoga pose, we purify all the layers of our body; the physical, the physiological, the mental and the intuitive to connect us with the essence of our being and the divine core inside.
So what is the motive behind our discipline? Is it to enhance our egos or to fulfill our souls? Yoga has definitely taken an interesting turn in history and become a fad here in our western world. We are now seeing Hollywood stars doing fancy poses and selling the American dream of forever young, thin, and beautiful. And there are so many paths, gadgets, and supplements suddenly that are commercially offered to enhance our Yoga journey. Yoga has become a billion dollar industry.
The last facet to the gem of tapas is austerity or simplicity. It’s hard to stay focused on what we truly need when our senses are bombarded with all the temptations and promises that are presented to us via TV, computers, magazines, and malls. And in our modern world it takes an extra dosage of tapas to train our mind to stay simple and focused. There is an old story about two men who went searching for water. One dug many small holes and found nothing. The other kept digging in one place only. With persistence the hole got deeper and he found water. So we need to simplify our environment, clean off the excess and stick to our chosen practices, and the rewards of the journey will come.
The Yoga mats we use in our studio and for home practice are called “Tapas” mats! So hop on; the adventure is endless.