Kino's Yogi Assignment Blog

Challenge Day 16- Tapas

I was once giving a lecture on Tapas. As I spoke about the principles of yogic practice and purification, one woman looked exceedingly confused. She raised her hand shyly and said she had a question. She asked, “Are you talking about appetizers and small plates of food?” I smiled and instantly knew why she was confused. Tapas in Sanskrit refers to the practices of purification that yogis engage in, but Tapas in Spanish refers to the small plates and tantalizing appetizers popular in Spain. Depending on which word you’re more familiar with, Tapas can mean radically different things. To epicureans of culinary delicacies, Tapas has a familiar meaning related to delicious small dishes. To dedicated yogis, Tapas is the acceptance of certain pains that lead to one’s liberation. It’s funny how the same word can mean radically different things in different languages. One path leads to the enjoyment of the senses whereas the other path leads to renunciation that is part of spiritual awakening.

This blog is about the Sanskrit version of Tapas. While I enjoy a Spanish Tapas Bar as much as anyone and I’ve eaten some amazing plates on the streets of Barcelona, my area of expertise sits within the field of yoga practice. So let’s get some Tapas on the grill and get our yoga fired up just right. Although, I might not be able to resist some silly jokes (and if you know me at all, you’ll know that I’m chock full of silly jokes, some of which I’m the only one who gets). Ok, it’s Tapas time. How do you best enjoy your Tapas? Medium? Rare? Well-done? Totally charred? Smoked? 

Ok, in all seriousness, the concept of Tapas is essential to the deep work of the yoga practice. Often translated as austerities, discipline, acceptance of pain, tolerance of suffering, there is a deeper root to the principle of Tapas. Unpacking the etymology of the word Tapas in Sanskrit reveals a literal translation of heat. The root word Tap means to heat, to give out warmth, to shine, to burn. The earliest usage of the word Tapas can be traced back to the ancient Indian literature where Tapas was defined as the heat necessary for incubation during the period of biological birth and likened to the process of transformation that lead to a yoga aspirant’s spiritual rebirth. A process similar to bird’s brooding over their nests where female birds keep the nest warm to incubate the eggs, the heat of Tapas was always linked to the power of birth, transformation and awakening. In the Vedas, Tapas evolved to include suffering, penance, the burning away of past karmas on the path of liberation. Not only does Tapas in the Vedas refer to yogic practices of purification, but the concept of Tapas is inextricably linked with the power of birth and life. The Vedas describe a process by which the gods are Tapas-born (tapojās), whereby life on Earth is created from the sun’s tapas (tapasah sambabhũvur) and how the cycle of life is perpetuated by tapas, a process that starts with sexual heat. The Sanskrit word Tapasyā can be translated as “produced by heat” and refers to a disciplined practice undertaken to achieve a goal. One who performs tapas is called a Tapasvin. The Hindu fire deity Agni is considered a powerful Tapasvin and is an agent of heat, sexual energy, incubation and transformation.

Most contemporary teachings on Tapas within the world of yoga emphasize the mandatory acceptance of certain sufferings on the part of the yoga aspirant along the path of yoga. In other words, the process of yoga is very much like willingly submitting yourself to the fire of purification. Once in the fire, Tapas is the acceptance of the pain of burning. This is no normal fire, however, because the yogic fire is aimed at purification, not destruction. Much as the process by which gold or butter is clarified so that impurities are removed, Tapas is the refinement of the spiritual nature of the yogi and the kindling of the fire of knowledge and liberation. But, to be clear, burning is never fun business, even if you’re fully committed to Self-realization. What is often relinquished into the fire of Tapas is often the most cherished aspects of one’s personality. The more the ego clings to a certain aspects of self, the more that Tapas will hurt. The deeper the identification with certain pleasures, addictions, activities and ways of being, the hotter the fire of Tapas will seem. This experience can be physical, mental, emotional or spiritual.

When you seek to change your behavior, it takes effort and, depending on the degree to which you are attached to your old behavior, actualizing the change may cause suffering. The classic example of a difficult exertion of Tapas is waking up at the bright hours of pre-dawn in order to perform yoga poses, such as the Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations) as the sun is rising. Few people I’ve ever met enjoy getting up early. Most, myself included, would prefer to sleep in. There is, however, great yogic benefit in waking up early and practicing before the dawn. While certainly not “fun”, there is power in this small form of Tapas. If you rise before the sun, then you will also rise before the hustle and bustle of the world and before your mind gets too active and clouded with thoughts. Your body is still in a semi-fasting state from sleep and if you practice during that state, it is possible to access deeper layers of the body. And, of course, if you plan on getting up early, you will also most likely plan on getting to bed early and eating dinner early. As a result, certain life habits also change. You might refuse going out for cocktails and Spanish style Tapas because you know you’re set to rise early the next morning and perform yogic style Tapas. To the degree to which you’re identified with being a young, hip trendy person who frequents the stylish eateries and bars, to that degree Tapas will hurt. It requires strong will power to practice Tapas and change behavior, thinking and being.

The foundation of Tapas is the heat of life itself, manifest as fire, but always rooted in love, the kind of love that a mother feels for her unborn child, as the powerful process of life unfolds and gives birth to a new being. As a Tapasvin, one who performs Tapas, you are working for your own rebirth, channeling the fire of life into your body, mind and soul, to awaken the seed of the spirit within and realize your highest potential. Tapas in the world of yoga is associated with austerities and acts of effort and discipline. But, remember that the heart of the word is still rooted in the goodwill, compassion and love. Tapas is heat and fire, but also incubation. The purpose of performing Tapas is to submit to a process of awakening and transformation that leads to a spiritual rebirth. The austerities performed are not ends in and of themselves. Tapas is not a celebration of pain. Instead, it is a kind of amalgamation process by which the very life force is refined and chiseled down to its most basic, purest essence.

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