Tapas is one of the five Niyama or personal disciplines in yoga, which focus on our relationship with ourselves. Tapas quite literally means ‘heat’ and equates to self-discipline in yoga.
It helps us devote as much time as we can to that inner fire; the fire that illuminates the way and burns through challenges and obstacles. That moment when your mind says, “I don’t want to practice today”; and you do, this is Tapas.
Daily yoga and movement practices help us release unhealthy habits and free energy blockages.
Tapas draws on our inner resolve to facilitate positive change in our lives through consistently showing up on our mat or chair and by simply moving that bit more as we go about each and every day. Regular yoga and movement practices help us release unhealthy habits and free energy blockages, which all-too-often sit at the root of chronic pain.
When we are most stuck, in any way – physically, emotionally, situationally – we need to look for where things are moving.
Tapas: inspiration from peers and elders
When I was walking into town early on Saturday morning, the start of exceptionally cold and damp December day, I met an older woman, probably around my age. She was picking up litter in my local community. I commented on her resolve and thanked her for all the work she was doing to clean up our local environment. I was inspired by her selfless service towards others, also known as Karma Yoga, which was demonstrated in bucket loads that day. This was Tapas in action.
I was also humbled. I had, just minutes before, congratulated myself on simply getting outside early, on that chilly morning, to beat the Christmas Market crowds.
Over the past few days I’ve also been reading ‘The Well-Lived Life’, a recently published book by Dr Gladys McCarey, a 102 year old Doctor, in which she offers her 'lived experience' guidance on health and happiness at every age.
We need to ask what brings relief, what sparks joy, what makes us laugh, and who we like to hang out with.
Dr McCarey describes life flowing like a stream; our lives can get stuck in the same way that dams build across streams. This means the water becomes a trickle, but does not cease to flow completely. This is important.
When we align with life - that trickle in the stream - we can get up from that sofa or armchair and start moving again.
When we are most stuck, in any way – physically, emotionally, situationally – we need to look for where things are moving. We need to ask what brings relief, what sparks joy, what makes us laugh, and who we like to hang out with.
When we align with life - that trickle in the stream - we can get up from that sofa or armchair and start moving again. And then all we need to do is to keep going to free the blockage.
This sounds relatively straightforward, but it can be challenging: for example, if we’re depressed, injured or our bodies have simply become used to the comfort and safety offered by an armchair or sofa, our sitting room or bed.
Fear is one of the reasons we cease moving in response to pain; but life is always in movement.
Using Tapas and Pranayama to move through chronic pain
Fear is one of the reasons we cease moving in response to pain; but life is always in movement. Nothing stays the same. If you’re experiencing chronic pain, think of it as stagnant energy or a blockage in your flowing stream.
Start first with a Pranayama (working with the breath) practice by deepening your breathing, and notice how your chest, belly and back respond; perhaps any pain you’re experiencing ebbs and flows? Then try lengthening your out breath to engage the parasympathetic nervous system. This, in turn, helps stimulate the relaxation response in your brain. Stay with your breathing for a few more rounds. Ride those gentle waves of your breath into stillness.
Observe, without any judgement, how you're feeling at the end. And next time you practice, try adding a few more rounds to your breathing.
Tapas as a form of attention and self-love
What we choose to focus on in our daily lives - how we use our attention - shapes our experiences including our perception of pain.
For this New Year, invite Tapas, loving self-care, attention and resolution into your yoga practice. . . and the stream of life within you will flow more easily.
'Do not undervalue attention: it means interest and also love. To know, to do, to discover or to create you must give your heart to it, which means attention'. Nisargadatta Maharaj (Indian Philopsopher, 1897-1981)
For this New Year, invite Tapas, loving self-care, attention and resolution into your yoga practice. Start simply by noticing whatever feels good in both your body and mind. In this way, the stream of life within you will flow more easily; and over time you will build resilience to and find relief from chronic pain.
And above all else, remember that ‘All you need for doing yoga is your body the way it is and your mind to say ‘You’re fine’. There’s nothing that needs fixing before you can begin.’ p.72 Soul to Soul, (Mundahl, Ed., 2015).
Start slowly from this position of acceptance and self-love, breathing away the ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’. This is ‘Yoga to love your body’ which sits at the heart of NurtureYou Yoga.
Wishing you all a wonderful year ahead, full of energy and joy,