Tapas part 2

more than just focus and flame

In his commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Swami Satchidananda writes, “Tapas means to ‘burn or create heat.’ Anything burned out will be purified. The more you fire gold, for example, the more pure it becomes. Each time it goes into the fire, more impurities are removed...By accepting all pain that comes to us, even though the nature of the mind is to run after pleasure. We will actually be happy to receive pain if we keep in mind its purifying effects.”

In other words...what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? That’s perhaps an extreme way of saying it. I’m sure this has some of you yoga mamas thinking of pregnancy, childbirth, and the often relentless role of motherhood. Yoga mamas know all about fire and transformation!

Last week I wrote about tapas as a form of transformative fire, but that ‘fire’ can have different qualities. Tapas doesn’t have to be a raging fire. It can be the fire of concentration, a spark of insight, or the slow burn of steady focus. It can be mental and not just physical heat created by movement. In light of that, here’s one yogic practice I’d like to share with you that involves this gentle/mental form of tapas: trataka. Over the last couple of months, I wrote about dristhi here and here; trataka is similar, but involves a more extended period of time. Think of a sitting meditation, eyes opened, gazing at a candle flame, flower, or some other object that has spiritual significance for you.

During the summer, I prefer to use water as a focus, to balance the fiery heat of the season. Water dances and reflects light in a softer way than fire does. Water transforms, nourishes, and yet holds potential dangers the way fire does. I don’t have the luxury of living close to the ocean or another body of water, like I used to. But water as an object of contemplation can take the form of a bowl of water, a fruit or vegetable from the garden that contains a lot of water, or even a recording of ocean or rain sounds if you want your focus to be auditory. 

Try it. Pick your object of focus: a candle flame, flower, stone, bowl of water, a tree, a religious symbol, a sound. Find something that has significance for you. Fix your gaze softly on it (or listen with curiosity if you choose a sound or even music), breathe, relax your body, and breathe some more. Notice your thoughts and emotions. Keep your breath flowing. Keep your eyes off your phone, the TV, or anything else of that nature. You can sit, stand, lie down, or walk - hatever helps you stay present.

If you really insist that you don’t have time to do this on a regular basis, maybe watch your kid(s) playing in the water, with your mind focused on your body and breath. Or meditate to the sound of dishwater running over the plates, or the sight of the water as it gushes from the faucet in a steady stream (although you don’t have to do Warrior Pose as I am in the photo above;). That counts, as long as the intention or focus are there.