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Maitri musings: tapas (sustained practice)

  • by Claire Ferry - Apr 01, 2019

I think it's quite funny that my intentions to write weekly articles on the yamas and niyamas fell apart on the week where I was to write about discipline! I last wrote on santosha (contentment) back in mid-February, and then just had a busy run of things. Admittedly I did write other articles, and also had a holiday and the Maitri open day, and the launch of the Sun Salutation challenge for UU's Mind Your Mood. Nevertheless it feels like this article is getting back on the wagon.

And that really is the basis of tapas, the third of the niyamas. It is translated as discipline, austerity, burning's the fire that gets us going, picks us up when we fall, and provides the fuel for sustained practice.

Many of those words can sound quite harsh, even aggressive, so somehow this steely will to start and maintain practice needs to be tempered by ahimsa (non-violence), love and compassion. Cultivating tapas does not mean beating ourselves with a stick of guilt, crashing through an intense practice for a week and then dropping out. Instead it is ongoing, sustainable effort. Little step after little step. Ten minutes practice a day becomes twenty.

We know this is true in life as well as yoga practice (as if the two were different...). The best approach is often a deep breath and repeat again, and again. Then we can start to take little steps outside our comfort zone, try a harder pose, deal with a relationship or an issue at work, endeavour not to respond in the habitual pattern.

What normally stops us from practice is not really the physical body or external circumstances, but usually the mind playing tricks - finding an excellent argument as to why we needn't bother continuing, hearing the inner monkey voice that says "there's no point, it's never going to happen, you're not good enough". Yes, we can be ill or have an injury, or we can have many other duties and responsibilities in life which require our careful attention (also yogic)...and yet these can give us additional fuel to for our fire, not less. These things remind us why continued practice is neither a burden nor a forced undertaking but a boon, not a millstone around the neck but a fertiliser for our growth and the creation of space for observing peace and freedom.

Iyengar writes that tapas is the purifying fire of action:

"Tapas is nothing but disciplining the mind through the eight limbs of yoga"

Sometimes you need a bright flame to burn away the impurities, a wake-up call. Then you need the patience and perseverance of a slow burning fire, directing you to the core and to what you deep down know you already are. You have what it takes to flourish.

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