I love sanskrit and philosophy so much that it borders on the weird. Particularly for me, who has always battled with foreign languages, the fact that I just eat up whatever sanskrit (an Indo-European language that no-one actually speaks any more) I can get my hands on is just odd. But that’s not the point.
The point is a particular sanskrit word, tapas. Tapas, as told to me by the brilliant Jenny Aurthur, is “the willingness to endure intensity for the sake of self-transformation.”
WOW. Read that a few times, if you would. The willingness to endure intensity for the sake of self-transformation. HOLY COW. (Ba-dump-bump.)
When I first heard this term, I interpreted it as any former triathlete would. I used it as a tool to kick my own ass. When holding plank, I would mutter “tapas” under my breath, press my hands more firmly into the floor, grit my teeth and hold it. Tapas meant press my chest more firmly towards my thighs in dolphin, open my inner front thigh more fully during vira II, etc.
And then, like many former (and current) triathletes do, I took it too far, and got injured. AGAIN. I have a history with ITB syndrome, a painful over-tightening of the illiotibial band that runs from the hip to the knee, and causes intense knee pain and often compensation of other muscles in the area. So, all of a sudden, any pose which involved a straightening of the leg or a forward bend caused horrible pain. Which, in case you don’t practice yoga, is about 60% of the asanas.
At first, I pushed through. Hard. Ignoring the pain, I kept pressing, and pushing, and fighting against my own body, still attending class 5-6 days a week, jumping to chattarunga and ardha uttanasana EVERY time during every surya namaskar, and basically ignoring the nagging voice in my leg that said, “hey lady, give me a break, will ya?”
Then, after many months of this, I had to stop. My doctor, who is a genius who I deeply respect, told me to take two weeks off from yoga, which I interpreted to mean, “just a little.” After two weeks with no improvement, he clarified that he meant, “No, really, NO yoga.”
All of a sudden, the meaning of tapas became slightly more illuminated, and particularly the meaning of intensity. If I thought my practice was intense, not practicing felt agonizing. I felt like I was ready to crawl out of my body, I was anxious and frustrated. And for two weeks, I sat through it. I meditated, I reached out for support, and I sat through it. And when I returned to Chrissy’s class, while my leg was certainly far from perfect, I was able to be so much more present and aware on my mat than I’d ever been.
For me, for today, intensity is not pushing myself as hard as I can, come hell or high water. If we do that, what comes to mind is another expression: ”If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” Tapas means LISTENING to our bodies and our needs in that moment, and ignoring whatever external or internal pressures there are to push or be pushed. So, for today, when I only come down half-way in a forward bend, or lie flat on my belly in lieu of child’s pose, I just mutter “tapas” and smile.