Tapas #1

Today is Labor Day, usually designating the “end of Summer” and the kick off to a new academic year. Drawing from one of my favorite Death Cab for Cutie songs, it is time to peel the freckles from our shoulders, expose our brand new coats so flushed and pink, and leave our love in our summer skin – our love of playing a little too long in the sun, of overindulgence, of having “just one more”. Yes, friends, it is time to get back to business. Good thing this month’s intention is tapaswhich is the first of the final three Niyamas (followed by svadhyaya and Ishvara pranidhana, to be addressed in October and November). Together, and according to Yoga Sutra 2.1, these three ideas are referred to as the “schematic practice of yoga” – or basically, a good way to get stuff done. In all seriousness, this trio serves as a vital component to any yogi’s lifestyle, loosely translated as austerity (tapas), self-study (svadhyaya), and surrender to God (Ishvara pranidhana). Like I said, more on that later.

Surprise! Tapas is more than small plates at a Mediterranean cafe (although that would a great place to practice it). Sometimes referred to as “inner fire”, tapas is a means to transformation, a way to tap into the potential energy within each of us. In traditional Indian culture, tapas is associated with extreme austerity and hardships – fasting, deprivation, sometimes bordering on torture and self-inflicted pain. I, and most modern Western yogis, are NOT about that. For me, tapas means getting off your butt, doing the shit you’ve been meaning to do, and not depending on other people to do it for you. It means shaking off old habits and taking control of your life. It might be inconvenient, uncomfortable, difficult, and at times seemingly impossible, but  – you still do it.

So what is IT? For me, this September, it will be recommitting to many practices I have let fall by the wayside. Meditation and pranayama are essential components of yoga that we often overlook in order to make room for handstands and splits. But no yogi’s day is complete without a few minutes of sitting quietly and breathing intentionally – definitely not mine. So, this month I will commit to a few things:

  1. I will meditate everyday. This means sitting silently, no music, no guided recording, just me and my mantra. I will meditate for a minimum of five minutes, but seek to sit for closer to 20. Making time for meditation seems like an easy task (who doesn’t have five minutes?) but, not surprisingly, it is easier to find other things to fill those that time that seem more productive or fun. But, as I know and experience when I have a steady meditation practice, sitting silently for a few minutes, especially in the morning, IS the most productive thing I could possibly do all day. It helps me face the day with right perspective; it keeps me calm, cool, and collected when shit hits the fan. Meditating is not just about clearing your head, but CLEANING out; I liken it to brushing your teeth or washing your face. We do it everyday without thinking, and if we forget we immediately feel and regret it. Meditation is just as essential, whether you consider yourself a yogi or not. If you’d like to start or deepen your mediation practice, here are some great tips.
  2. I will practice pranayama everyday. This means SOME form of breathwork, including agni sara, nadi shodhanam, and three-part breath. I won’t go into detail on these, as the links provided explain each practice way better than I can. But I will share that these are simple and effective breath techniques that virtually anyone can do (read the articles for any contraindications.). Agni sara is the only one that’s a little tricky and takes some real “practice” to practice it effectively, but, as I’ve learned at the Himalayan Institute, it is THE most important thing you could every day for your body. It’s great for your belly, as in digestion and strength. It’s good for keeping that “inner fire” (hello tapas!) stoked, keeping your motivation strong and intention focused. A tight belly and quick mind? Sign me up. If you’d like to start or deepen your pranayama practice, here are some great tips.
  3. Lastly, I will recommit to the intentions I have set throughout the year thus far. To recap, here’s what I did:
  • Ahimsa (Non-harming): Eat a vegetarian diet and be a nice person.
  • Satya (Truthfulness): Speak only the truth.
  • Asteya (Non-stealing): Take only what you need.
  • Brahmacharya (Moderation of the senses): Refrain from watching TV.
  • Aparigraha (Non-hoarding): Get rid of what you don’t need.
  • Saucha (Purity): Don’t eat processed food.
  • Santosha (Contentment): Quit complaining and be happy.

That’s a VERY simplified summary of the yamas, niyamas, and my monthly foci, and you can look back at past posts for more details. It would be overwhelming and unrealistic to practice ALL of these things ALL of the time, so I am instating the 80/20 rule: be good 80% of the time, give yourself slack the other 20% (as a loose guideline). My true hope is to remind myself of all the work I have done, to be a little better about all the intentions I have set this year, and remember that the yamas and niyamas are not ideas to practice for just 30 days, but ALL the time, even just a little bit.

Yes, Ben Gibbard, the seasons change is indeed a conduit. As cooler days (hopefully) approach and the kids return to school, it is the perfect time for all of us to buckle down and start anew. I pride myself on being an eternal student; we are never to old, experienced, or educated to keep learning. Yet we can only receive what we let in, so how do we begin? How do we wipe the chalkboard clean, start over, and allow for change and growth? Here’s a start – sit down, shut up, close your eyes, and breathe.

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