Tapas: More Than Spanish Munchies
I love sanskrit so much that it borders on the weird. As someone who wrestled with French, Hebrew and Italian all through childhood, the fact that I eat up all the sanskrit (an Indo-European language that no-one actually speaks any more) I can get my hands on is just odd. But that’s not the point.
The point is a particular sanskrit word, tapas. Tapas, as defined for me by the brilliant Jenny Aurthur, is “the willingness to endure intensity for the sake of self-transformation.”
Wow! Read that a few times, if you would.
The willingness to endure intensity for the sake of self-transformation.
Holy cow! (Ba-dump-bump.)
When I first heard this term, I interpreted it as any former triathlete would — I used it as a tool to kick my own ass. (Or, kick my own asana, if you prefer. Ba-dump-bump again!) When holding plank, I would mutter “tapas” under my breath, press my hands more firmly into the floor, grit my teeth and hold it. Tapas meant press my chest more firmly towards my thighs in dolphin, open my inner front thigh more fully during virabidrasana II, etc.
And then, like many former (and current) triathletes do, I took it too far, and got injured. Again. I have a history with ITB syndrome, a painful over-tightening of the illiotibial band that runs from the hip to the knee, causing intense knee pain and forcing other muscles in the area to compensate. So, all of a sudden, any pose which involved a straightening of the leg or a forward bend caused horrible pain. Which, in case you don’t practice yoga, is about 60% of the asanas.
At first, I pushed through. Hard. Ignoring the pain, I kept pressing, and pushing, and fighting against my own body, still attending class 5-6 days a week, jumping to chattarunga dandasana (four limbed staff pose) and ardha uttanasana (half-forward bend) every time during every surya namaskar (sun salutation) and basically ignoring the nagging voice in my leg that said, “Hey lady, give me a break, will ya?”
Finally, after many months of this, I had to stop. My doctor, a genius who I deeply respect, told me to take two weeks off from yoga, which I interpreted to mean, “just a little.” After two weeks with no improvement, he clarified that he meant, “No, really, NO yoga.”
A New Type Of Intense
All of a sudden, the meaning of tapas became slightly more illuminated, and particularly the meaning of intensity. If I thought my practice was intense, not practicing felt agonizing. I felt like I was ready to crawl out of my body; I was anxious and frustrated. And for two weeks, I sat through it. I meditated, I reached out for support, and I sat through it.
When I returned to class, while my leg was certainly far from perfect, but spiritually I was able to be so much more present and aware on my mat than I’d ever been. This is not to mention the intense gratitude I felt for the ability to practice, when so many others have injuries and disabilities far worse than I have ever encountered.
For me, for today, intensity is not pushing myself as hard as I can, come hell or high water. If I do that, what comes to mind is another expression: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” Tapas means listening to our bodies and our needs in that moment, and ignoring whatever external or internal pressures there are to push or be pushed. So, for today, when I only come down half-way in a forward bend, or step rather than jump for that fifth sun salutation, I just mutter “tapas” and smile.
Katharine Reiner is a New York based yoga instructor, whose vibrant approach to life extends to how she teaches asana: a practice filled with exploration and fun, balanced with a thorough focus on centered alignment. To learn more about her adventures in life and asana, check out her blog, liveoutloudyoga.blogspot.com, or e-mail her at [email protected].