Imagine you’re staying in some remote place without any indoor plumbing. There’s a well on the property and you’ve been assured that the water’s been tested. It’s safe and ready to use. But you’re gonna have to collect enough water for all your cooking, drinking, and bathing needs. So, you start searching the cabin for some kind of container… and you open a cupboard and discover several large clay vessels. Which one will you use? Will you choose the one that’s dirty? Or the one that’s full of holes? Or the one with a tilted base that will lose water every time you try to set it down? I’m guessing you wouldn’t choose any of these. I’m guessing you’d keep looking until you found a clean, leak free vessel with a level base. Am I right?
This story is based on ancient teachings… And maybe you’ve already figured out that the vessel is a metaphor. Our bodymind—and I’m intentionally putting these words together as one—is the vessel. And we’re not talking about collecting water. We’re talking about our ability—or not—to build, contain, harness, and direct energy. What kind of condition do you want your bodymind vessel to be in?
Our yogic ancestors described four kinds of vessels: upside down, dirty, leaky, and tilted. Here’s how my teacher describes them:
The upside down vessel represents an individual with a closed mind and a closed heart.
The dirty vessel represents those people whose systems are toxic at some level. This includes not only physical toxicity, but also psychological or emotional toxicity.
The leaky vessel symbolizes those who are unable to sustain practice and to build energy in their systems.
The tilted vessel symbolizes those who receive practices and teachings and make progress, but who are unable to maximize their full potential.
Now, since you’re taking the time to listen to a sermon on yoga, I’m assuming you have some curiosity and openness in you, which means you’re not an upside down vessel. But what about the dirty, leaky, and tilted vessels… Do any of those descriptions feel familiar to you?
Your bodymind is the vessel that allows you to experience this life. If your bodymind is overrun with toxins and your physiological systems and your nervous system aren’t able to function properly, what happens to your clarity and to the vibrancy of your energy? If your mental energy is scattered in 2 million different directions, how will you ever build and harness enough energy to move toward your dreams? And if you’re constantly out of balance and unable to hold your ground as you make progress, how will you move forward?
If we want to cut through all the negative conditioning we’ve received and all the old stories we lug around with us and all the distractions we encounter almost every minute of every day, and all the bad habits we’ve developed throughout this life, if we want to cut through all this gunk, we’re going to need energy. And lots of it.
The kind of effort required to build, contain, harness, and direct this kind of energy is called tapas. It’s the 3rd niyama. And it’s such an integral part of yoga, that my teacher wrote: “there can be no Yoga without tapas.” Tapas is heat… we need heat to purify, seal, and right our vessel.
When you’re sterilizing mason jars before canning food, you boil them. When you’re trying to make yourself functioning cups and bowls out of clay, you fire them in a kiln. When you’re trying to straighten a bent piece of metal, you take a torch to it and bend it while it’s hot. Heat is powerful.
My teacher, Gary Kraftsow, writes:
“…tapas is the means through which we purify and transform ourselves. [Tapas, which can be translated as austerities] is also linked to renunciation and deprivation. In depriving ourselves of something to which we are habituated, we resist acting in our habitual patterns, and this resistance creates a kind of internal heat that purifies, strengthens, and transforms us.”
Pandit Rajmani writes:
“Tapas is withstanding the pain caused by the pressure of the senses and our self-imposed resistance to that pressure. Until we reach the highest, there is a constant tug-of-war between the good and the pleasant, between our discrimination and our desires, between the forces of surrender and the forces of attachment. Cultivating the capacity to withstand this pain and adhering to our resolution is tapas.”
Chip Hartranft writes:
“…tapas actualizes our commitment to know freedom by disentangling us from our attachments, snipping their tendrils one by one. Every time a distracting impulse is noted but not obeyed, the bodymind sees through and beyond it, gaining energy and inching closer to discriminating awareness.”
Do you hear the common thread running through these descriptions? Tapas is heat. It’s effort. It’s uncomfortable. Tapas is the heat that builds up inside us as we put forth effort toward increasing our capacity to stay with the discomfort of transformative change.
Every day, choice after choice after choice we are moving in a particular direction. Every thought, feeling, and action leads us in one direction or another. Toward our goal or away from it. Which means, if we want to live lives of intention—if we want to influence the direction of change in our lives—we have to pause and ask ourselves: Who am I becoming through this choice? Where are my habitual patterns leading me? Are my habits helping me create a bodymind vessel that is clear, balanced, and full of vibrant energy? Or are my habits helping me create a bodymind vessel that is off kilter, full of toxins, and leaking energy everywhere?
Our ancient teachers are leading us on a path of becoming one with the Divine Truth of our Being. But we’re not going to uncover this truth if we’re off kilter, full of toxins, and leaking energy everywhere. Which means the first step on the spiritual journey is deeply practical. We have to clean up our physical, mental, and emotional crap. Spiritual bypassing is the “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” We can’t bypass the hard work of tapas. If we’re serious about reaching our highest potential—if we’re serious about wanting to surface the conditioning that has separated us from the reality of who we are—we can’t bypass the hard work of tapas.
Let’s remember how picky we’d be about choosing a clay vessel to collect water. We wouldn’t use a dirty vessel to collect our drinking water. And we wouldn’t waste our time trying to collect water in a vessel that’s full of holes and leaking everywhere. We also wouldn’t waste our effort on a vessel with a tilted base—one that we could never set down without it spilling. So here’s a question we have to be honest about: Why aren’t we this picky about the quality of our bodymind vessel?
Trying to hold water in a leaky vessel is a waste of our time. Before we collect the water, we have to seal the leaks. In the same way, if we want to make progress on the spiritual path, we have to be able to build, contain, harness, and direct energy toward that goal.
Before we go any further, let’s pause as we always do to remember that yoga isn’t about self-judgement and shame. Yoga is a practice of uncovering. It’s about surfacing the conditioning that has separated us from the reality of who we are. The truth of our Being is vital wholeness. But over the course of our lives we’ve built habits that drain our vitality. Tapas is a practice—a hard practice—of revitalization.
Pandit Rajmani says that:
“The literal meaning of tapas is ‘shining heat.’ Tapas is the radiance of the life force—it makes us radiant and vibrant. … Tapas is inner fire. It incinerates the impurities blocking the flow of our intuition.”
We’re not here to torture ourselves—in fact the Bhagavad Gita is very clear that tapas is not about self-torture. We’re not here to add to our mental affliction by shaming ourselves. But we’re also not here to keep our heads in the sand. We have to be honest with ourselves about the habits that cause us pain and dis-ease. We have to be honest about the habits that keep us stuck and drain our vitality. What are the tactics you use to avoid dealing with hard things? What are the tactics you use to avoid feeling any discomfort?
Donna Farhi writes:
“These avoidance tactics may temporarily placate our senses, but they create a deep form of unhappiness. On some level we know we’re not being true to ourselves or our potential. Discipline is having enough respect for yourself to make choices that truly nourish your well-being and provide opportunities for expansive growth. Far from being a kind of medicinal punishment, tapas allows us to direct our energy toward a fulfilled life of meaning … that is exciting and pleasurable.”
What are your go-to habits for avoiding the hard work of reaching your highest potential? What habits are keeping you from living life with love, clarity, vibrancy, and joy? Whatever they are, they need to be transformed.
But, because I’m sure you’ve tried to change a habit before, you know that it’s not an easy thing to do. Let’s look at an example: It might sound like a silly one to some of us, but be deadly serious to others. If you’ve built the habit of eating a pint of ice cream every night before bed, but decide to stop, the first night without your Ben and Jerry’s isn’t pleasurable. It sucks. You want the ice cream. And as you stand there, wanting the ice cream, you experience discomfort. This experience of discomfort is the heat of tapas. The practice of tapas is learning to stay in the discomfort without succumbing to it. If you can learn to stay in it until it passes or changes—if you can stay in the heat of tapas and learn to harness it—you will be able to transform your negative habits.
The practice of tapas turns up the dial of our attention. It forces us to stay present with the discomfort of choosing not to act on behalf of our ego, attachments, aversions, and fears. As Chip Hartranft said:
“Every time a distracting impulse is noted but not obeyed, the bodymind sees through and beyond it, gaining energy and inching closer to discriminating awareness.”
Can we stand the heat of our discomfort in order to be transformed? In order to move toward the truth of who we are?
Yoga Sutra 2.43, translated by my teacher, reads:
“The fire of disciplined practice destroys impurities and leads to the mastery of the body and senses.”
When we’re not weighed down and clogged up by physical and mental impurities we’re able to build, contain, harness, and direct our energy. Which means we’re free to experience the world with clarity and vision. And full of vibrant energy, we’re able to see the path we want to take and we have enough willpower and stamina to steadily move forward on that path. This might sound like magic, but it isn’t. It happens one step at a time. One moment at a time.
As Donna Farhi writes:
“An important part of learning to channel our energies is increasing our tolerance for staying in the pause between desire and satisfaction. This is a very important point. For some of us, even a momentary delay in quenching our longing can cause a feeling of inner panic. Just as a person trying to quit smoking may struggle to overcome the urge to smoke, when we contain desire we begin to understand what it is that we really crave and how we might put an end to that craving. An essential element of increasing our skillfulness in this domain is learning to be in the pause between a feeling and a reaction. What happens in the pause between the longing for a feeling of freedom and how we respond to that longing is worth considering further because it is in this pause that we make a choice.”
Tapas is the commitment to stay in the pause between a feeling and a reaction. Tapas is the ongoing choice to stick with hard practices that you know support your goals. Tapas in the commitment to stay in the fight for social change. Tapas is the choice to renounce a habit that’s killing you.
Tapas is the heat that builds up inside us as we put forth effort toward increasing our capacity to stay with the discomfort of transformative change.