Yoga. The word and its practices carry different connotations and attachments for each of us, mainly because of its diverse portrayals in sacred texts versus social media and the countless forms and spin-offs available.
But, if you listen closely, there is a common thread: It works.
Most teachers I encounter do not know why it works, and most students are not interested in knowing how it works. Some people may see this as a tragedy. I see this as an opportunity. An opportunity for those who are asking the questions to earn the right to learn the answers.
Yoga works for many reasons. But at its core, it works because it is transformational.
Change requires pressure. Just as diamonds cannot be created without pressure, neither can mindful and self-actualized humans. Pressure at work, in relationships and on the yoga mat gives us the opportunity to enhance our skills so that we can develop our capacity. This increases our ability to take on more while using less effort.
Yoga teaches us to sit with pressure to ignite change in ourselves and our lives. So, where does this transformational pressure come from? “Tapas.” No, I am not talking about going out for Spanish food. I am talking about the yogic word for heat.
The principle of tapas invites us to cultivate the self-discipline to practice with regularity and intensity. When our willpower to practice conflicts with our desire to do something else, we build heat. This heat can remove impurities in the body, mind and spirit.
Yogic heat arises in various aspects of the practice. In the West, we see it most commonly in sweaty public classes that teach “asana,” the physical poses of yoga.
Asana offers an opening to transformation for the practitioner. The body is typically the easiest place to begin because we can see the process and its results. Most of us can feel the pressure of our hamstrings reaching their limitations more easily than we can feel the pressure of our minds or our spirits nearing their edges.
Transformation does not and does not need to occur in one pose or in one class. It can take many practices, if not years of practices. Maybe even decades. There is no timeline for transformation.
The key to using tapas to transform is to determine how much heat you need. Yoga creates awareness about our tendencies so that we can evaluate whether they are serving our intentions.
What is your tendency on the mat? Building Tapas.
Do you shy away from hanging in a pose a little longer or giving it a bit more? Do you hit the bathroom to escape challenging poses or leave class before or during an intense savasana?
If so, experiment with building more heat. Breathe through the discomfort. Trust yourself that you are strong enough to withstand the pressure and that it will transform you. If you do not have a practice, I challenge you to start today.
Inversely, do you always need to push yourself to your limit? Do you not have a “good” yoga class if you do not feel as if you are going to explode? For you, doing less in class will actually create more pressure. Why? Because it goes against what you always do.
Push yourself, but learn how to not overpush yourself. This caveat is especially true if you run hot, are competitive, or need everything to be perfect. Pressure catalyzes transformation, but too much pressure causes cracks. As the late yogic master Swami Satchidananda said: Tapas is self-discipline, not self-torture.
Only you can determine the right amount of tapas for you. As spring is a time for cleansing, I challenge you to examine your practice to see where you can turn up the heat to burn through whatever is holding you back. If you are cringing at the thought of doing less, you have already found your heat. Find the right amount of pressure for your practice so that you can use yoga to transform your life.
The transformational qualities of yoga come from action. Take action today toward the direction that you want your practice and your life to move. Give the heat time to build. Then, let it transform you.