“Tapas, zealous, sustained practice that is the heart of all yoga…
It is literally heat, the heat that in an alchemical sense, transforms.”
B.K.S. Iyengar Light on Life page 263
This definition implies that if tapas (sustained practice) is present there is transformation. I ask myself in asana practice when confronting obstacles, how might I find the right effort that I can sustain (tapas) so that a change takes place? If I experience no change, how does my effort need to change?
Comparing the two pictures below, what sustained practice (tapas) will be required to transform my setu bandha on the left to B.K.S. Iyengar’s setu bandha on the right?
In daily life, when finding myself getting angry or experiencing jealousy my tapas does not seem strong enough to bring transformation. This gives me a sense of the true meaning of tapas the effort that is required to change…this is the arduous journey that the sages describe as the path of yoga.
Perhaps it is helpful to look at what tapas may look like for students at various stages of yoga practice.
When a student starts to practice asanas, (postures) their tapas is the effort it takes to make it to their weekly yoga class and their transformation is leaving with a greater sense of well-being. There are often limitations of mobility, flexibility, and balance and it is easy to be discouraged. Here tapas is required, but where does it come from when one is discouraged?
B.K.S. Iyengar has said that tapas cannot exist without faith (sraddha) and courage (virya), and he called these the yogic vitamins. As one practices over time and notices that what once was difficult has become easier, faith deepens as it is based on experience. With sraddha and virya the beginner aims for the asana not perfection.
“This practice is not complete without faith (sraddha) and courage (virya). These should be combined with the study of sacred texts and of one’s own behavior (svadhyaya), determination (drdhata) and meditation (dhyana). “
B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, page 94
“Nothing is achieved by a mind that doubts. Persistent practice alone is the key to yoga.”
With on-going tapas a student learns the shape of the asana and is able to stay with greater steadiness. Within this staying, awareness deepens, and the mind feels the body with increasing sensitivity. He senses things he did not realize before: “Why is it so much more difficult to press weight on my right foot, why do I feel a stretch on this side of my body but not here?”
“This contemplation on the asanas means that you are no longer a beginner….it is not that the feeling of pain and imbalance has come due to wrong practice. On the contrary it is because you have started to feel the flow of energy, you have begun to realize the unevenness that exists in your body.”
Geeta Iyengar, Preliminary Course, Yoga in Action, page 120
This physical steadiness is the base which brings awareness and reflection. B.K.S. Iyengar has called this “pose and repose”. One enters the pose, reflects, and then readjusts from this awareness.
“While doing the postures, your mind should be in an interior conscious state that does not mean sleep; it means silence, emptiness, space that can be filled with an acute awareness of the sensations given by the posture. You watch yourself from inside. It is a full silence. Maintain a detached attitude toward the body and, at the same time, do not neglect any part of the body or show haste but remain alert while doing the asana. Do things rhythmically with a calm mind.”
B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, page 32
This space of reflection between action and subsequent action is what enables the possibility of transformation, it is what allows the philosophical ideals of the yamas and niyamas to come a little closer to being lived, whether in asana or in the busyness of daily life. Within an asana, we have a more controlled environment in which to reflect and readjust. In the busyness of daily life, this space for reflection may not be there or we do not realize that it could be there. Without reflection, we just react to situations based on our likes and dislikes which are creating a lens through which we interpret the world. These likes and dislikes are clouding the lens of consciousness (we see what we want to see) and we lose sight of the purity within, our own true self. Recall that our conscience is the face of the lens facing our true self and is less likely to be contaminated by our likes and dislikes.
“This (conscience) is the face of the lens of consciousness that faces the soul. It is less likely to be tainted by contact with the world than the outward face of the lens, which is in contact, through the senses, with the world around us. When this facet of consciousness, which in English we call conscience is flawless, reflecting only the light of the soul, it is known in Sanskrit as the organ of virtue (dharmendriya).
“Conscience tells us to do the harder thing, because it is always pulling us toward Unity, toward wholeness. Our desires, our selfishness, our intellectual flaws always tug us toward the world of diversity, where we judge issues, muddle through, and try to choose the lesser of two evils. ‘Conscience, when it is flawless, is the voice of our soul, whispering in our ear. In that sense, even a painful conscience is a privilege as it is proof that God is still talking to us.'”
B.K.S. Iyengar Light on Life, pages 178 and 179
In daily life, it may be useful to take a breath before responding. We can step back and “repose” from the situation. This can be a practice that can be sustained, a tapas, that allows us to realize we have a choice in how we react to the situation. Our choice may be the harder thing to do, but sraddha and virya are there to help us one step at a time.