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Tuesday, September 03, 2002

Tapas: Heat, often translated as Austerity

Perhaps there is no aspect of the ethical teachings of Yoga (the Yamas and Niyamas) that has caused as much confusion, pain and suffering, then Tapas. The whole purpose of tapas is allegedly to break down negative samskaras (which is the sanskrit word from which we get the word "scar." Samskaras can be seen to be "habit energy," particularly those habitual patterns of behavior (physical as well as mental and psychological) that simply do not serve us well, delude us and keep us bound to conditioned reactivity. It may also sometimes be said that the practice of tapas is to "burn off negative karma."

Some people (and whole traditions) have really gone overboard with this. In fact, the Buddha, after leaving his Yoga teachers, fell in with the practice of tapas in a terribly "big way." It is said that for six years he pretty much tortured his body, living on one sesame seed a day or one grain of rice, drinking only the dew off of leaves in the morning etc. There are still "saddhus" in India who do this sort of thing. But what the Buddha found was that all extreme tapas practice brought him was to near death, and that no matter how severe his austerities, and maybe actually because of them, his body continued to clamor for attention. He was still plagued by lust and craving.

As an archetypal mythic arc, the extreme austerities of the Buddha seem to balance the extreme soft and easy luxurious life he had led as a young prince. But he eventually found a "middle way," which in fact is what the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path is still referred to. In response to Mara (but perhaps to those who reviled the Buddha as a "quitter" when he gave up his extreme austerity, the Buddha had this to say:
"Ascetic practices are as irrelevant for gaining liberation as oars for moving over dry land. It is through discipline, meditation and knowledge that I attained enlightenment."

Now, notice that word "discipline," which is one way of thinking about "shiksa" which is also translated as "training." This is how a more wholesome approach to tapas can be re-framed. Tapas is practiced whenever we give ourselves up to a discipline. Getting out of bed on a February morning a half hour earlier than we would prefer, in order to sit in meditation, no matter how cold and dark it is and how comfy the bed is, is tapas. Doing a head stand when we are really afraid to and could just as easily give in to doing something else is tapas. Whenever we see an old habit come up and choose to not act it out if we can also see that it does us no good is tapas.

One way any of us who practice Yoga can add tapas into our life is to periodically go on retreat. There, where everything is scheduled and silence is maintained we practice a form of tapas. Whenever we challenge ourselves to go beyond what we think we can do (and this may mean volunteering to help at a soup kitchen, or to donate blood, just as easily as it might be fasting for a day or two or attempting that head stand) we are practicing tapas.

Remember, Yoga practice, as Patanjali says, is to alleviate pain and suffering that is present and to keep pain and suffering that has not arisen from arising, so it is preventive and rehabilitative "therapy." So, practicing ahimsa (non-harm) in regard to oneself, one can still practice the right amount of tapas in order to help burn away all the old internal scripts that keep you tied to your idea of what is possible. It is, in this way, that we see the freedom of discipline.

In what way do you find yourself ever "caving in" to that which you know deep down does not serve you or your practice of love and understanding? Can you now promise yourself that the next time such a situation arises, you can "stretch" yourself at least a bit? This is the true flexibilty required by Yoga practice. "If you can't take the heat..."

.: posted by Poep Sa Frank Jude 7:12 PM

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