Sutra 2.43: kaya indriya siddhih ashuddhi kshayat tapasah
The inner psychic fire [tapas] destroys all impurities of the heart and mind, and brings about the health, sanity, wholeness or perfection of the physical and vital being (the inner senses). Translation and interpretation by Swami Venkatesananda
I have a confession to make. I love handstand. I have been turning myself upside down since I was a little kid playing at gymnastics, and then more seriously since I discovered improvisation and modern dance. It was the dance approach (go down to go up, use your ground to take flight) that got me into the fun of it. And it is without a doubt one of the most joyful things I know! I will gleefully play upside down as long as my shoulders will let me.
So, when I walk into class this week and talk about applying tapas to one’s practice of handstand, I feel kinda guilty, because at first, it feels like I couldn’t in a million years relate to the efforts that go into a handstand practice. I don’t have fear to overcome (nor do I remember ever feeling afraid –when you start small, the inversion from standing on your feet to your hands isn’t that big a shift), I don’t have tight hamstrings or tight shoulders to open gradually and patiently over time. I have the strength to go upside down, and even if I didn’t, I know how to swing myself into the posture without much strength. I can balance away from the wall, I can even take a few steps on my hands. I can have fun upside down. What’s left to “work” through?
And there’s the rub. From years of flinging myself upside down and this way partially by virtue of the flexibility of my joints, I have uncovered some shoulder discomfort that comes up in pretty much all weight-bearing-on-the-hands postures if I stay too long. Patience and santosha take tapas for me here. Tapas, the inner fire that helps you work through discomfort and illusions, the self-discipline that you employ to bring about clarity in your being and wholeness in your person, comes in so many forms. In my case, it takes some effort to be satisfied with just enough play, because if my joints held up, I’d be at it all day. I don’t ever emotionally tire of turning upside down. But since my body isn’t bionic, I do need to listen to its cues of too much and leave be the fun for another day.
Tapas doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It comes paired with trust, courage, and honesty. Self-discipline without a deep self-awareness can end up being a false discipline, one that may make us fit into standards, but not necessarily into ourselves. If doing the hard work in your life seems impossible, take a step back –it may very well be that you’re doing hard work that’s not useful for you. Look inside a little deeper or even from a different perspective, and the tapas you need will slowly reveal itself.
Hari om tat sat!
Experience your true self and bring it into every moment of your living!
The Yoga Sutras are a classical text on yoga–a guidebook of sorts.
Each week, 216 teacher Esther Palmer dives into one of the sutras and we let it take us where it takes us.