Hello and Happy Monday,
We are on to the third Niyama (personal observance) and it’s one of my favorites, not just because it is the first Sanskrit word I remember learning. Tapas. Tapas comes from the Sanskrit verb Tap meaning to “to burn”, and the traditional interpretation is discipline and intense commitment constantly focused in order to burn off the obstructions holding us back from our true self.
When I started yoga in the late-1990s my teacher graciously suggested that if we wanted yoga mats we could put in a big order together through Hugger Mugger and get a sticky mat for $25 each. I remember when that purple sticky mat arrived. We all showed up to class and collected our individual mat and when I rolled it out it said at the top “Tapas Mat”. I had no clue what that meant. My teacher did not teach us about tapas that night in the sense that she used that word, but later after I found out what it meant, I realized she had always been teaching us about tapas, and all the other niyamas and yamas for that matter, every time we met her on the mat. For the next 9 years, I continued to learn from Maureen Murry and Theresa Rowland. I practiced Iyengar yoga, it was an exhilarating and quite humbling experience.
In many forms of yoga, there is discipline involved. Most of the time, just showing up to take a class takes discipline. In the style that I was learning in (still learning in), we worked on one pose at a time for a long time until we put the postures together. This took tons of focus and strength and stamina. Quite honestly, those were and are three things I still struggle with today. I was a serious student, eager to learn, practicing at home so I could show up prepared. After about one year of practicing regularly, I asked my teacher what the level II class was like. I had overheard people talking about it and thought I could try it. My teachers told me I wasn’t ready that I couldn’t do most of the requirements needed to enter a level II Iyengar class. Which included but were not limited to, a freestanding head stand for 8 minutes, full wheel pose with straight arms, and a handful of other inversions. (the requirements might have changed slightly, but not much) This was so disappointing and humbling. Here I was showing up a few times a week, practicing at home, basically, every single day consisted of my yoga practice and I wasn't ready for the next level.
I had a fire inside of me, I wanted to progress, I wanted to do more yoga postures, get better at the ones I was learning, and I wanted to obtain this “bliss state” my teachers spoke about regularly. I worked hard. I had now learned what Tapas meant and every time I rolled out my mat at my home I sat and stared at that word. It became my first mantra. Theresa and Maureen told us that Tapas meant austerity. They also told us that tapas was the first step of transformation. At that time, I was working at Prudential Financial. I was the Director of Long-Term Compensation Benefits, single, and desperately wanting a family of my own. I even had this thought that I could maybe be a yoga teacher but was worried that that was just silly and not reality. I was looking for a change, for transformation. I worked for months on headstand, falling so many times. I worked on full wheel, splits, shoulder stand, chatarunga, so many poses, so many tears, so many breakthroughs. When I finally was invited to attend a Level II class, I was almost jumping up and down. When I attended, I almost immediately wanted to go back to Level I. All that hard work, and I had more work ahead of me. Turns out the work never ends. Turns out, you need the discipline always, not just to level up.
I learned a lot in those years with Maureen and Theresa. When I moved to Virginia from New Jersey, I practiced on my own until I found a studio to call home. Each time I rolled out my yoga mat, which was in great condition even after all those years of diligent, consistent, intense commitment to this practice, I sat and stared at "Tapas Mat". Sadly, in 2010 I retired that mat, 11 years after I got it. But I’ll never forget the lessons I learned on it.