The Fruit of Tapas
By Erika Halweil, June, 2013
“Self-disciple burns away impurities and kindles the sparks of divinity.”
— B.K.S. Iyengar, translating Yoga Sutra II.43
About six years ago, during a very challenging period in my life, I started practicing ashtanga yoga as taught by Pattabhi Jois. I had been a yoga teacher for almost a decade at this point, had been exposed to the practice of ashtanga on several occasions, and often reacted to it with aversion and judgment. But, for some reason, during this particular moment in my life, the practice felt like home.
In ashtanga, the breath is the heart of the discipline, and helps to link postures in a precise order. Then, with the application of mulabandha (the root lock), and uddiyanabandha (the flying-up lock), as well as drishti (the gazing place), an immediate and intense internal heat is produced. Very quickly, with daily practice, the practitioner realizes that it’s not about how challenging the posture is, but how we can cultivate our capacity to breathe deeply and evenly while sustaining the focus of the mind. This is what we attempt to do every time we unroll our mat.
As we all know, this is much easier said than done. The body can distract us with its aches, pains, and constant cravings; the breath can be shallow, erratic, labored; and the mind is usually wild with thought, jumping all over the place, and riddled with fear. So how can we liberate ourselves from the endless pushing and pulling of internal forces? How can our daily, consistent yoga practice purify our body, breath, and mind in order to experience the more subtle aspects of spiritual practice that await us?
Fortunately, within this tradition of practice, there are great answers for every question one might have (even if the answer is, “Practice and all is coming”). Guruji would say that ashtanga yoga was Patanjali yoga—all the answers can be found in the Yoga Sutras, in which Patanjali describes the process of yoga. In the second chapter, he lists the eight-limbed path of ashtanga yoga—yama (how we relate to the world); niyama (how we relate to ourselves); asana (postures); pranayama (regulation of prana/breath control); pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses from their objects); dharana (concentration); dhyana (meditation); samadhi (absorption into spirit/source/divinity/pure absolute consciousness). The first five limbs are the outer limbs—we actively participate in them through daily practice. The last three limbs are gifted to us; we receive them as a result of our diligent and consistent efforts, which is tapas.
So our goal relies on our commitment to our detoxification and purification on every level. Our tapas—sometimes translated as “to burn”—is our willingness to use our body, breath, and mind to begin a type of “un-gluing” process—to make a sacrificial fire of ourselves. Asana is designed to soften us up, to make us more receptive, to help us let go of our protective layer of conditioning, to release fear, pain, doubt. But how do we begin to purify (and eventually steady) the mind?
In Patanjali’s system of classical yoga, we approach the mind through the sense organs. We apply each of the senses to a specific aspect of the practice, keeping them fluidly fixed on the present moment (instead of their usual tendency to run in every direction in search of satisfaction). Our physical posture relates to our sense of touch— we are encouraged to remain still, without fidgeting, for the length of the posture (usually five breaths). This resistance to fidgeting causes friction, which in turn causes heat! The breathing system relates to the sense of sound, smell, and taste. We breathe with sound, through the nose, while the mouth remains closed. The gazing place relates to sight—the eyes rest in one place. As we try to clean our sense organs, we become more sensible, more sensitive.
This increased sensibility and sensitivity has an affect on our relationship with the world. We begin to cultivate discernment that will help to further our spiritual pursuits through better choices. My teacher, Tim Miller, says, “Clean the sense organs, polish your heart.” In sutraII.43, Patanjali writes that when one is firmly established in tapas, one receives the gift of freedom from the bondage of the mind and body—the purification and mastery of the mind and body. When one’s mind and body are purified, the heart is free to shine.
Let’s take this opportunity to recommit to our daily tapas; to refine our relationships, both external and internal; to cleanse our bodies, breath, and minds through our own disciplined efforts, making ourselves ever more receptive to the divine gifts all around and within us.
I dedicate my efforts to my wonderful partner in life and love, my beautiful daughters, my extraordinary family and to all those who choose to dig deeper than the obvious.