One of the best gifts I’ve ever received was a copy of the Yamas and Niyamas from one of my most beloved teachers and mentors, the owner of Just Be Yoga. The Yamas and Niyamas are the yogic ethical guidelines to life, that create the foundation for a skillful lifestyle. Deborah Adele describes them on her website for the book by writing;
“The Yamas and Niyamas are like a detailed map, telling you where you are and how to look for the next landmark. The Yamas and Niyamas free you to take ownership of your life and direct it towards the fulfillment you seek. Gaining the the skills to choose attitude, thought and action may be the grandest adventure you can choose.”
One principle outlined in the book is Tapas, which, if you ask most people, means a delicious array of Spanish appetizers. However, in yoga and in life, Tapas refer to fire or heat, and, more specifically, staying in that fire. It’s getting comfortable with discomfort in order to undergo change. On your mat, it can be holding chair pose until your legs feel like they’re going to fall off because you know you’ll be stronger on the other side (and that forward fold after will be delicious). Off the mat, however, it’s a bit more difficult. It can be much harder to sit with emotional discomfort than physical discomfort, especially when the reward is often intangible or hard to solidify. For example, dedicating yourself to a strict study schedule in school can be hard, but we do it so that someday, we’ll be educated and successful people. But the relief is far less instantaneous than the blissful forward fold after utkatasana. It can take years for our dream to come to fruition, and it doesn’t usually come with much fanfare.
Studying, however, is a pretty mild example. Sometimes, discomfort feels more like pain. For someone with social anxiety, sitting with Tapas can be pushing yourself outside your comfort zone into new social situations, but this can seem nearly impossible. And the reward is even more intangible- what are you working towards? Total comfort in all social situations? Is that even possible? What am I working towards? Why should I change? And that’s probably the hardest part to swallow about Tapas- change. Routine is so comforting, so welcoming, that change seems almost worthless in comparison.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in yoga is to embrace discomfort. On and off the mat. Tapas recently presented itself in my own practice in camel pose. I briefly wrote about it on my Instagram:
“Fact- I really, really don’t like camel. For me, it doesn’t have the same opening and freeing sensation as other backbending postures. In fact, it makes me feel really restricted and contained. Camel is such a vulnerable pose that I oftentimes want to skip it altogether- but I’m trying to apply Tapas and learn to sit with the discomfort (more so mentally than physically) and explore why I feel that way.”
The beauty of yoga is that our mat mirrors our lives- what makes us particularly uncomfortable on our mat makes us uncomfortable in real life. For me, that’s the feeling of being contained, or trapped, while simultaneously feeling vulnerable.On my mat, that’s ustrasana. Off my mat, that’s whenever things don’t go just as I planned. In both situations, I need to practice working through that discomfort and finding relief on the other side.
Tapas is so much more than an appetizer.