What is TAPAS?

I love tapas – and not just the delicious mini-meals you share with friends and family as part of a traditional Spanish-type dining experience – but the tapas that relates to yoga. When most of us first begin to practise yoga or to consider practising yoga, it is fair to say that we probably have little idea of the philosophy associated with the subject. While we may understand that it is an ancient tradition that appears to have originated in India, many of us were perhaps more likely to see yoga as a type of physical exercise that we could “do” as a way of improving strength, flexibility and ability to relax. We may also have been put off by images of incredibly bendy people! The truth is though, the essence of “yoga” has nothing whatsoever to do with strength or flexibility. In fact, these things are just incredibly useful side effects.

Yoga According to Patanjali

It is believed that years ago, Patanjali – an ancient Indian sage – summarised a series of convoluted vedic texts into aphorisms as a means by which aspiring yogis could easily comprehend and thus apply the wisdom. These are now known as Patanjali’s Sutras. Even in those days, Patanjali saw that while the human mind was one of our most useful attributes, it could also be our most dangerous enemy! And so it is these days too; driving ourselves crazy due to information overload and an inability to control our thoughts -aaaaagggghhh!!

Patanjali defined yoga as having “eight limbs” (astanga). Only one of these eight limbs describes asana – or physical postures (and only two sutras mention asana out of 196!). The “limb” we are interested in today with regards to tapas is niyama – basically meaning “personal observances”. Patanjali described five personal observances that we should all be aware of and one of these was  “Tapas”.

Yoga philosophy is such a monumental subject that for most of us, it is best read and understood little bits at a time. Once you begin, it becomes clear how the practises and wisdoms link together – there is no such thing as one bit without the other – but for me, the concept of tapas became a great anchor. It meant that over time, without really thinking too much about it, I began to let go of all the things that had held me back and could live a more yogic lifestyle simply because I was able to stop being so hard on myself. That is, I let go of the idea of ambition – my perceived outcome or “the fruits of the action” – and just made a decision to “do it anyway”. Once I accepted ‘what is’, the transformations crept up almost unconsciously. As Pattabhi Jois, the master of Astanga yoga was fond of saying while he was alive; “Keep practising; all is coming!”.

The Future is Now!

Let me explain further; there are a few definitions of tapas – it can mean “heat”, “discipline” or “burning enthusiasm”. Indeed BKS Iyengar states that tapas means “religious fervour”. However, some suggest that it translates simply as meaning “always doing your best without attachment to success or failure”. This definition, plus “burning enthusiasm” are my personal favourites. Years ago, I was an “all or nothing” person. I lived my life in the future and strived towards an imaginary place where I had it all together and had achieved my goals and dreams. But I had my fair share of upheavals in life and many ups and downs. In those days I had a tendency to hold on to these things, blame others for the way I felt and yearn for change. All of a sudden though, you realise the future never comes: This Is It. And (let’s be brutally honest here….), no one really wants to hear it and you end up in danger of boring yourself. Sad but true.

Attachment to Perfectionism

Once upon a time, I tried to attend the gym every day. Or I’d go for a run. Or a bike ride or I’d walk miles or swim 2.5 km, or do some yoga. Sometimes even all in the same day! If I couldn’t do these things I became riddled with guilt which lead to an awful feeling of fear. About what??? I wasn’t over-weight or unfit. Life experience tells me it was some kind of perfectionism or control issue; the type of which continues to rule the lives of many people around me, and has the potential to drive us nuts whether it is about having a house or a face/body that looks like something from a glamorous magazine or being the alpha parent of a prodigal child. For me, either I was going hard and half killing myself, or giving in and doing nothing but sitting around with a head full of misery because I had “ruined it” by buying into my thoughts and making excuses. When I made a decision to begin practising yoga on a regular basis though, I loved the way it made me feel in my head. Sure it was challenging for my body which was a surprise to me as a fit and reasonably flexible person, but never had I slept so well or felt so relaxed. People commented on how chilled I was! Chilled? Me! Amazing!

I realised that by simply by paying up-front for my twice-weekly yoga sessions, I had subconsciously created an intention to attend. I decided that, within reason, whatever happened, I would go to these two classes and if I managed to do more, that would be fantastic. But, two, I could usually get to. Rain, hail, shine, I went to class. If I was feeling under the weather, I went to class. If I had a niggling injury, I still went to class and practised humility (and ahimsa – non violence). I chose to modify instead of buying in to thoughts of pride. I made a decision that the goal would always be sticking to the plan – yet without attachment to the plan. After a while, I took a deep breath and gave up the gym and..well….nothing happened! I actually became fitter, stronger, more flexible and, even though I didn’t need to, I actually lost weight without trying.

And so……

I feel as if the concept of tapas was the beginning of unconscious transformation for me. Simply by committing to a manageable, but not overly crazy routine and creating an intention to stick with it as much as I could. When I look back I realise that lots of those crazy mind issues have  just fallen away over time. I rarely feel guilt, the fear is no more, I sleep well, I let things go more easily and I have learnt to be much kinder to myself!