Hubby’s been working his socks off recently, finishing a big submission for publication. 50,000 words no less! His students struggling currently with their 8,000 word dissertations couldn’t believe this level of work or what it represented in understanding and knowledge. I’m super proud of him — of what he does and how he does it. Even with a flu virus for company, he’s been working really hard for some time to get through this work, and he’s really disciplined about fitting the extra hours in, yet still remaining a loving husband, a reliable colleague, and a patient teacher, and all the other roles he plays in life.
And in my own professional life, I’m not a stranger to demanding workloads myself — the long solo hours spent figuring stuff out intellectually and then the energy required onboarding colleagues and putting it all into practice, and all the other facets of corporate life. But when I compare with yoga, I wonder what ‘working hard’ in yoga practice looks like? Or what it feels like? Yoga is about so much more than just putting the hours in, though clearly in any practice actually doing it is of paramount importance. But there’s something you can’t rush about yoga. My teachers always encourage me to be patient. There’s a long slow burn that’s inherent in the ‘work’ of yoga. You can’t pull a tough all-nighter here and there and expect to see some significant change (other than an injury perhaps!). Paradoxically the magic appears often when you put less obvious effort in. So it is for me at least. So that’s something to figure out — when working hard is in practice the very opposite!
Although I’m shy to admit it, I’m starting to get a bit serious with my yoga. I find myself devoting more time to it, in the various aspects it presents to me right now. Not just āsana, but that’s definitely part of it. Physically I’m consciously trying to build more strength and more stamina. So I need to load myself a little more (stronger, longer practice) in some way in order to develop. But I have to find the balance so I don’t just injure myself or burn myself out. Beyond that I’m trying to look a little more deeply within myself, opening up to whatever possiblities arise trying to listen out to what’s calling, trying to notice the answers being offered to questions I didn’t realise I was asking.
The burning metaphor (‘burn out’, ‘slow burn’) I find I’ve used twice now as I write is wholly appropriate since I’ve been exploring tapas a little recently. A few weeks ago I asked my teacher for some ideas on what this niyama means in practice. I was feeling a little put off by the ‘austerity/discipline’ meaning. I don’t think I need more discipline in my life — I’m trying to free myself from some rigidity! But my teacher’s interpretation was all about ‘heat’, the other meaning of tapas. For him this means building heat in the body using the breath, ultimately as a way of burning away impurities. “It’s all about the breath” is a phrase I hear him use so often in class. Some days it makes sense to me, other days it doesn’t so much. My eyes tell me āsana practice is all about gross movements of the body, and yet if I settle into myself enough, yes, I feel the animating force of the breath, how it changes my shapes so subtly but so powerfully, how it leads me into each movement at the right moment and to the right intensity, and how it calms my mind and draws me inward, to some indescribable place within myself.
But rarely do I have the patience and delicacy to stop seeing with my eyes and really start listening in like this with my heart and soul. Not yet at least.
So here, I think, is where the meanings of tapas starts to converge: there’s a soft discipline involved in allowing the heat to generate right from the core of my being. Start slow, be drawn to move by the breath, not by the mind and my will. This subtle force of inhalation and exhalation lifts me up, physically and mentally, and animates me with a warmth that feels right in my body. If only I have the discipline to follow its subtle calling. The simplicity of this, a compassionate austerity maybe, is the true inner experience of yoga, even if outwardly in class it looks like all sweeping limbs and loud music. Synchronised sounds and movements are just a useful tool for the rather alien process of turning inward.
So this is my understanding of tapas today. Balancing these different aspects of tapas is a very different form of hard work compared to simply burning the midnight oil in the library or office.
image source: pile of books from crossexamined.org, tapas from ekhartyoga.com