Tapas: Keeping the Fire Lit

“All the darkness vanished when I saw the lamp within my own heart.” - Kabir

Tapas has been on my mind lately. Maybe you already know that Tapas is one of the foundational practices of yoga called a Niyama. Tapas is often related to heat and fire and I totally get that because it’s kind of like keeping the burner on. How do we keep showing up? How do we step toward what we know we should be stepping toward, even when it’s hard? How do we find a way to sustain ourselves during this time? To find a path of sustainability where our own energy, clarity, sense of vitality is in balance?

There are many, many stories about the blue monkey deity, Hanuman. In a nutshell, these epic stories detail his devotion and showing up to dharma and Sita. One story tells of his long tail being lit on fire. And, because he had been doing his regular practices, he was able to reign in his attachment to ego and instead of burning himself he leapt up and burned the village down.

You can feel the heat in the idea that Tapas is the ability to show up again and again and again. How we develop a sense of empowerment, will and fervor. Often, tapas is translated as austerity. To show up with a certain seriousness. And, I like to think of it with a bit of sweetness, too. Because, sometimes we think we can just “follow our bliss” – which we’ve taken to mean that if I’m in the mood then, I’ll do it and if I’m not, then, I won’t. But, what this practice suggests is to do it with regularity and rhythm. Not always the big, hot, firey practice, but the consistency.

When we keep the fire on a sustainable flame, we are able to burn away anything we need to clarify: fear, anxiety, confusion, delusion, frustration, stress, etc. So, we engage our will to show up so that we can keep clean. Whatever we put into the fire-like a precious metal-burns the gunk away and we have the gold left.

We can use our own light and attention to illuminate places we might be struggling with-greed, fear, grasping. With compassion. And, if we forget the practice for a week/months/years then, we find a pathway back that really works for us and our life to return. Much like parenting or any relationship. Maybe we are not always in the mood. Maybe it’s not always our biggest bliss. But if we’ve tied it back to our deepest intention (sankalpa), then it helps to remember oh right I do want to keep things cleaned up and offer this (anger, gripping, jealousy, etc) back into the fire (swaha). Using it as fuel.

And, our body is an amazing playground for Tapas. To feel the heat from corework. The fire in our legs. The sweat on our skin. The breath pumping. And, we also have to be careful not to burn out even on our mats. Or, our calendar. Or, in an argument. But, to find a sustainable, controlled burn. Because, many of our habits take us toward addictive and avoiding behaviors where medicate and run because we don’t always want to deal with it. Tapas is to keep the fire on, the heat going, to show up again and again.

And, this leads to Tejas- an illuminated presence. Again, not necessarily sweaty, red, hot. Though this could be one of the fires we need to burn. But, that we find a rhythm and a way to ritualize these practices that are reasonable day to day. What it is to find discipline? Like parenting. How can we take the energy of our kids and place it in a particular direction so its not just pure pinball, energy blasting in every direction. Similarly, this is why I practice with my teachers because left to my own devices I will most likely loop in my samskaras-avoiding, medicating and running. Tapas helps discern what actions are fully necessary in our life. What activities? What practices? Where to put our energies? Where to put our precious life force? What is it to show up again and again. In the mood, not in the mood. And allow our selves to transform into our purest nature.

And, of course, the more we practice the more amazing it becomes. The more we practice the more we reap the benefits. It’s about fine-tuning. This willingness to keep on the same threads to keep showing up again and again and again.

And, to remember compassion. That it’s a sweet endeavor – not to draw ourselves toward self punishment, rigidity or self-denial. How do we relax a bit and keep the fire on the tail lit. So that our will can really burn and digest some of our old stories so that we are not responding from those old places. It could be a place we hang out in for a lifetime. Because those stories, threads, samskaras affect how we relate to the world and ourselves – undigested experiences. And, to digest, we need that heat to discern what is nutrient and what is waste– same with traumatic or beautiful, uplifting, and the best ever experiences-all have to be digested the same way- to form who we are. This is a big part of Tapas.

What would it be for you to step into the fire?

What is something you’ve been putting off-an action or conversation?

What are some ways you want to recommit to your own practice?

Here’s to keeping the fire of illumination going

With love,