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Tapas: Transformative Fire

Posted by on Aug 26, 2018

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Tapas is the third of the niyamas (observances). It can be translated in many ways, including heat, purification through discipline, passion, and commitment.  Tapas is the fire of transformation that sparks positive change. It is the commitment and discipline we need to break free of habits, or samskaras, even when it is difficult or uncomfortable. We experience tapas when we choose to stay with challenge and not back away.

Swami Kripalu said that tapas is “the friction produced by going against the grain.” Fire is a transformative element. We have an opportunity through tapas to burn up negative habits and inertia so that we can become our highest self. Tapas isn’t just working harder or doing more. Instead of taking the easy way or being complacent, tapas drives us to do something different. This doesn’t always mean through a heat-generating practice. For example, if you are naturally a fiery person, tapas for you might be slowing down and letting go of aggressive behavior in your practice and towards yourself and others. If you have trouble being still, tapas might be the discipline it takes to sit on your mat and meditate. If you want to begin a new practice but are having difficulty getting started, tapas might be listening to the inner voice that compels you to take the first step instead of to maintain the status quo.

Tapas can also propel us into action to speak out against injustice, or to create social change. For example, it takes awareness and commitment to notice our personal biases and choose not to act on them. It requires an open heart to hear stories of injustice without shutting down or minimizing another’s experience. It takes courage to acknowledge ways in which we might benefit from privilege or carry our own internalized oppressions. We might feel the rub of friction when we are confronted with the role we play in condoning and participating in injustice by choosing inaction. We might fall back on habitual patterns of defensiveness or guilt when our words or actions are challenged. However, we have the choice and the ability to choose a different path. Instead of shutting down or running away, we can ignite the fire of tapas to help us work towards change, not just for our own liberation, but for the liberation of all beings.

Choosing a different path, one free from reaction and habit, requires awareness. Through our yoga practice we can notice when our habitual mind takes over, and choose to act with compassion instead of react from a place of ego. When you notice yourself falling back into habit, pause, breathe, and take a moment to feel that friction. Notice what it feels like in your body, and the thoughts that surround it. Stay with the experience with an open mind and heart. This practice of noticing and pausing can help us to rewire the brain and break the grip of the habitual pattern.

This fall, cultivate tapas by committing to personal or social change. Join us at Evolution for one of our many fall offerings:

As you embark on this journey of transformation, be patient. Change takes time, especially when we are unlearning ingrained patterns.