We are currently exploring, in class, the archetype of the Warrior-Saint: a fusion of our ‘will to self-sovereignty’ tempered by compassion and a drive to serve others in love. Growth towards the light side of the archetype are found in the observation of a set of inner ethics or practices to be cultivated.
These habits or dispositions are expressed yogically in Patanjali’s 5 niyamas- a set of inner ethics- that the yogi uses for navigation through life’s turbulence. Last week we explored Santoṣa.
This week we explore the concept of Tapas.
The Niyamas- internal ethics
The niyamas are a set of 5 virtuous habits that we must try to embody. They are as follows:
- Śauca: purity, clearness of mind, speech and body
- Santoṣa: contentment, patience, acceptance of others, acceptance of one’s circumstances as they are in order to get past or change them, optimism for self, being in the moment
- Tapas: fire, glow, persistence, perseverance, discipline, containment of one’s energy
- Svādhyāya: study of self, self-reflection, introspection of self’s thoughts, speeches and actions
- Īśvarapraṇidhāna: contemplation of the Ishvara (God/Supreme Being, Brahman, True Self, Unchanging Reality), surrender, service to That which is greater than ourselves
The Path of Self-Control: Tapas
Tapas is heat; fire. In Sanskrit it means “to burn”. Tapas is the Inner Sun that radiates within us: it is our inner motivation and the glow that drives us onward. In yogic terms it refers to stoking the inner fire in the belly/ the nabhi. This inner fire blazes a path through the energy channels (nadis) and the chakras bringing about a state of purification. When we are purified the energy is strong; power is up. We are self-contained.
But life- and our senses- bombard us with a vast array of information and sensations: we get pulled in every direction. As our focus scatters, so too does our energy. We begin to leak energy all over the place. The inner fire dims and the inner sun goes down. We end up feeling thin energetically, and exhausted and scattered. Here energy and power have been leaked and spilt.
Tapas is a discipline we find in daily yoga. We return again and again to our mats to get the fire up. As we feel the power and energy in us grow we find self-control. The body- (housing the mind and soul)- becomes a watertight vessel for pranic energy. With tapas we can self-regulate our energy and choose how we expend it.
Hence tapas refers to fire, heat, and glow but also to self-discipline, grit, perseverance. The two go together. It is the nature of fire to burn down whatever will burn, and leave behind that which can withstand the fire. Over the course of time, the fire of yoga leaves standing only that part of us which is non-flammable- the soul nature.
When we begin to sense and dwell in Soul Nature, we move into a sattvic (pure) state. This is the realm of the Neutral Mind (the third of the ten Yogic Bodies in Kundalini Yoga). This is a space from where we can choose to act, and not react. Where we harness our power to be used as we choose. We decide how to spend our energy here. This is a potent place to be and is the result of the development of tapas.
The Metaphor of Alchemy
From roughly 400-1400 CE/ AD throughout Egypt, Asia and Europe, the alchemists were obsessed with the quest to turn base metals (such as lead) into gold. This was a scientific process of transmutation in which alchemists sought to purify denser, impurer metals into higher qualitative states. Through detailed, highly esoteric practices, their aim was to ‘spiritualize’ base substances into their highest and purest forms.
Carl Gustav Jung- the Swiss psychotherapist- understood this alchemical quest not as an external one but as a metaphor of the inner journey; the growth and development of the Soul to wholeness, or individuation. A human being- in our basest nature- has potential to transform and transmute into a higher, purified version of the Self. This is the process of personal alchemy. It is when we can finally own the Shadow Self and become a whole person.
Yoga, to my mind, does exactly the same thing. We work with the base metals of the self (our animal nature) and through practice, practice, practice we begin to transform. We grow towards our human nature and then beyond, to our angelic nature. Yogi Bhajan often made these distinctions between the animal, human (or earthling) and angel nature.
“In this way the rule of life is very simple: each day increase the angel in you and decrease the animal in you. That is all that is required. Most people act like an animal or an earthling.
You also do the worst thing: you falsify your own quality. You develop a false ego, a false fantasy, and live in imagination about yourself. You are a human, an angelic reality, but you live as if you are an earthworm, burrowing in the earth and darkness!” Yogi Bhajan (The Mind)
And yogic practices can appear- and indeed were- as highly esoteric as the processes that the alchemists sought to master. Master teachers, such as Yogi Bhajan, made it their life’s work to explode the secrecy surrounding many of the yogic practices we so freely enjoy access to today at the click of a mouse. It is easy to forget in this Aquarian Age of easy access that the kriyas and meditations we enjoy were once the preserve of a handful of yogis, and highly secret. We must treasure them as gems.
Baking the Clay of the Body
Tapas can be most succinctly summarised in this quotation from the classic 17th century Hatha Yoga text, The Gheranda Samhita–
“This body is an unbaked clay pot, which dissolves as soon as it comes in touch with the water of the sense organs and worldly affairs. When burnt and purified by the fire of yoga, the body becomes strong and it can withstand the world of objects. We should transform our life through the practice of yoga.” Gheranda Samhita 1:8
Most notable here is the idea that we learn, through yoga training, to “withstand the world of objects”. A point worth reflecting on. And, I do say ‘yoga training’. Tapas is about the fire of yoga- discipline, commitment to better and conscious choices in our lives. Yoga is a science of personal alchemy. It requires regular practice. It is not, (but can be taught as such), having a nice stretch to keep flexible. It brings serious shift and tranformation if we open ourselves to it: when we bring both our full power and energy (Shakti), married with the quality of devotion (Bhakti)- we are alight!
Next week: The Way of the Warrior Saint- The Path of Self-Discipline: Svādhyāya
Stoke the fire of the Self,
Ignite and alight.
Purify the crooked shadows within you
Morphing their soft shapes into honeyed-gold.
Feed on the rich fuel of self-loathing, the jagged days that cut our hands and hearts;
All fuel for the fire, beloved!
Stoke the belly with its smoky cauldron,
Bubble and bake and stew the falsehoods that plague in the dark hours;
Shovel in with the crackled spade the lies we self-tell and the stories that break us daily.
Sweet beloved, glitter up that fire-pit with your treasured self-hates,
Burn the dross of others’ words that have stuck these many years like tar to your fingers…
Fire, burn! And watch the sky of the Self illuminate from root to crown,
Bleeding out the wretchedness with every fire-blown pore and exhalation!
Let Soul blast the tattered veil of illusion we wear like Sunday Best,
And fierce it into forest fire!
Glow and blow!…
And as ashes settle, so too do you.
You are Phoenix, beloved,
Smelted and fire-shone in the morning light.
You stand eight-foot tall in your bridal gown,
Crowned with planets and with stars caught in your hair and eyelashes.
I am humbled in your Presence:
Wild Warrior- you who treads the Earth with a knowing foot;
Sainted-halo strung at your hip
Spilling Love, like rosewater, amongst all who pass by.
All blessings. x