Mid- February. Ugh! Even in “normal” times, for me this time of year has always been about Holding On. Winter has settled in, and shows no sign of ending. It’s been extra cold and snowy up here in Pennsylvania. The ground has been covered for weeks, and I find myself nostalgic for the green of grass and leaves in this grey and white world. Add to that the very real phenomenon of Covid Fatigue, after a yearlong collective trauma parade, and sometimes I’m not sure I can make it! Even my introvert’s delight at tucking in has soured. I’m cold and bored and antsy and a little blue…longing for daffodils and a vaccine. Now, more than ever, I must tend to the fire of Tapas.

Tapas, derived from the word tap,which means “to burn”, is the third of the Niyama (personal practices) laid out in the second chapter of the Patanjali Yoga Sutra. It’s many translations include discipline, austerity, sacrifice, devotion, passion for transformation, and the burning away of impurities. Tapas,along with Svadhyaya (study of self and sacred texts), and Ishvarapranidhanat (surrender), is the cornerstone of the yoga path, and like the journey itself, shifts to accommodate wherever we are in the moment. Sometimes we are on fire – wildly in love with our practice, eager to temper ourselves in the flames of transformation. We are hungry for change and growth, and excited to jump on our mats and burn. At these times we happily sacrifice our time and comfort in the pursuit of higher goals. And there’s nowhere we’d rather be than in the center of the flames of metamorphosis. Oh, how I love these times!

But what about when life gets busy, or we just get tired or apathetic about our practice? Maybe we hit a plateau, or suffer an injury, or find some unexpected obstacle in our path. This is when the less sexy version of tapas comes into play. Discipline. These are the mornings when you’d rather stay in bed, but you get up, roll out your mat, and do a couple of uninspired sun salutations. This is when we have to dig a little deeper, and forfeit comfort for growth. We relax and KEEP GOING. We acknowledge the importance of honoring our commitment and keeping the faith. We must remember that yoga is always working, even when we cannot see the fruits. Tapas as discipline sustains us until our passion is reignited. Sometimes the fire rages, and needs to be contained. Other times it is reduced to smoldering embers that require a bit of oxygen to catch. The life of our practice is a study in tending the flames.

It’s perfectly realistic to assume that your yoga practice will change throughout the course of your life. And varying levels of commitment will yield different results, just as the quality of wood will determine the fate of a fire. Sometimes you may be Green Wood…mildly interested, but never really able to ignite. There might be plenty of smoke, in the form of a fresh class pass or cute new yoga clothes, but after dabbling for a bit, you lose interest, often when things start to get uncomfortable. Other times you might be Dry Kindling. You dive headfirst into a training, retreat or immersion. You ignite quickly, and rapidly burn out. Maybe your enthusiasm leads to injury or exhaustion, or perhaps you simply realize that you’ve set a pace you cannot realistically sustain. Hopefully, you eventually become Seasoned Wood. You light the fire slowly and carefully so it can burn long and steady. If we want yoga to last a lifetime and create real change, we must strive to become seasoned wood. By remaining present and vigilant, we can turn the heat up or down as needed to keep our practice at a slow, sustainable simmer.

The fire of tapas burns away the impurities of our tension patterns. My teacher always says that a pose truly begins when you want to get out of it. A wonderful way to explore tapas is by remaining in poses longer than we want to. As the honeymoon ends, our muscles start to ache, our minds begin to revolt, and we can literally feel ourselves start to cook in the pose. This is when things get interesting, and the alchemy begins. Our hidden tensions reveal themselves. Our resistance presents itself for examination. Our stored pain and trauma scalds as it leaves our bodies. We relax where we can to soften the flame, and breathe deeply to give it more air when it wavers. Our hard shells begin to soften and our senses become purified as we surrender to the intensity of our experience. We trust in the difficult, and freely offer up our present comfort in exchange for future freedom. As we cook we become tender and open and pliable. We relax and let go in the center of the fire. We learn to welcome the warmth we create with our dedication and zeal, and remember that spring is coming…