Set your life on fire
Seek those who fan your flames
As I write to you this evening, I am drawn to the organic and austere melody of “A Spire” by Canadian cellist Julia Kent (you can play this piece by clicking on this link)
Since my last post, I have had a great deal of time to reflect in mindful meditation about what my injury means for me in my journey ahead. I have tried to do so with a hopeful and positive attitude. I have tried to take in each day at a time to excavate those precious, mindful moments that Jon Kabat-Zinn speaks of in his discourse – both alone in self-reflection and contemplation; and also in the warm embrace of my loving parents (who have so graciously taken care of me during the first few weeks while I have been in recovery) who I don’t get a chance to spend time with nearly as much as I’d like to. I shall say more about this later in this post.
In the last two weeks, I also attended the second session of our 200-hr Anahata Rising Yoga Teacher Training course at Bliss YogaSpa over the Family Day long weekend. On the first evening of our weekend together, I explained to my fellow YTT trainees that I experienced a great lesson in irony in that I had proclaimed proudly in the first YTT session that I was “injury free” – only to then eat humble pie having suffered this unplanned injury to my foot. My classmates have been very supportive; they showered me with offers of assistance and on more than one occasion they brought me warm tea during breaks and bolsters to place under my feet during class lectures. They brought my lunchbox to the yoga practice room for me and joked with me about how I was a ‘slowpoke’. I had the sense that many of them felt bad for me because I could not do the one thing that I have come to embrace over the last 18 months: physical asana practice. I re-assured my colleagues that this was meant to be; that I was meant to focus on other aspects of my yoga practice – like meditation and pranayama – and that I have been positioned in this way to learn certain truths or lessons that would serve to strengthen my yoga practice going forward.
One of the lessons I learned and re-learned this past weekend – much of it through direct observation of my instructors and my peers – is that of the power of ‘tapas’.
What is tapas?
The word ‘tapas’ is traced to the third of Patanjali’s Niyamas. Traditionally, it is most often translated as meaning ‘austerity’ or ‘discipline’ or ‘heat of effort’. The word tapas itself is derived from the root Sanskrit verb ‘tap’ which means ‘to burn’. In this way, tapas is very often explained as the cultivation of self-discipline, passion and courage. Tapas is also linked to the subtle body – specifically our third chakra (Manipura) – which is the chakra responsible for cultivating will power, determination, and transformation.
Tapas leads to transformation – on and off the yoga mat.
Over the course of the weekend, I observed several distinct examples of the power of tapas at work. I am thinking of my classmate Jen as I write this. Jen, like me, is still quite new to the practice of yoga i.e. under two years. Yet, I witnessed the fire – the tapas – within her ignite over the weekend. For the first time, Jen completed her first handstand ever. While it was an assisted handstand, it didn’t matter to Jen or any of the rest of us. We were all so inspired by her determination. She has the will of a tiger!
And then there is my yogi brother Kelly. I have commented elsewhere in a previous post how Kelly’s positive example is one that I wish to cultivate in my own life. I came to this observation during our time together in Spain. But, only this past weekend did I come to a greater appreciation and awareness of Kelly’s commitment to his practice – I was a witness to the deep fire, the tapas, within him emerge. This was most evident to me during asana practice. Kelly did not have his jellies with him (he has previous wrist injuries that restrict his range of motion somewhat) that he normally utilizes to support his wrists during practice. Instead, Kelly carried on with his practice without the jellies, mindful of course of putting too much pressure on his wrists. But, he stayed with his breath the entire class and worked from a deep place of conviction (note: this was not an easy class as it turns out – our guru Lindsey worked everyone hard through a ‘drishti’ or gaze-based practice). Below are a few photos that Jen took of our soul tribe during asana practice.
But the most potent example of tapas that I witnessed was through observation of all of my classmates and my instructor, Sheena, undertaking 108 sacred sun salutations in complete harmony (I kept count on my mala beads).
All of my classmates – and I mean all of them – never gave up once, never stopped and said “I can’t go any further.” It was a defining moment in our journey together. At one point, the music stopped, and all you could hear was the collective inhale and exhale as my classmates moved reverently through the Surya Namaskara A (sun salutation) sequence.
I remember thinking: Yes, this is yoga. This is truly the union of individual consciousness merging with the greater consciousness. This is union of mind, body and spirit. I cried tears of joy as a witness to this precious moment.
After my colleagues completed this 108 sequence, we de-briefed together. There was laughter, tears (happy tears), and an overall feeling of satisfaction that every single person met the challenge of the day with dignity, strength, and will power. Indeed, for a moment, there was a feeling of utter invincibility in the room. I recall Jen’s comment that completing the 108 salutations was perhaps more challenging than giving birth! I can also see vividly my classmate Donna’s look of absolute determination, her hands rising up to greet the sun with gratitude and devotion each time she came into Urdhva Hastasana (upward hands pose).
I had the impression that all of us left this past weekend’s YTT session on a high note. Although I was not physically able to do the asanas with my colleagues, I remember reflecting on this and thinking: “Alex, it matters not. You can do yoga anywhere, anytime. Even in your mind.” This is another pivotal lesson I have learned in the course of my journey to recovery.
When I think about tapas now, I can’t help but think that this aspect of yogic philosophy has propelled me (without knowing before I came to yoga) in most significant decisions I have made thus far off my mat in my adult life. It is this principle –above all others – that propelled me to leave my private law practice for the public service 18 months ago. It is also the same yogic principle that I believe fuelled my parents’ determination to leave their native Hong Kong in the 1970s to forge a better life for themselves, their children and grandchildren in Canada. Self-discipline, determination, and will power – these are all important values that my parents have instilled in me since I was a young boy. They are as equally important as other principles my parents have taught me such as humility, charity of heart, and compassion for others.
The final lesson I have learned in my journey of recovery is this: tapas transcends generational lines. It was my parents who came to my assistance in the days following my injury. It was my parents who drove me to and from work, helped drive me to my medical appointments, stocked my fridge and cooked meals for me where I physically could not. All of this showed me just how dedicated my parents have always been to their children (even as adults). Because my parents never gave up on their goal of coming to Canada to begin a new life in an unknown land, because they worked through periods of great adversity to build a successful life for themselves and their children – I will never give up. In all things, I commit sincerely to the principle of tapas – the heat of effort – in my life.
In closing, it struck me this past week just how important it is that one not just come to their mat to do yoga – but to do yoga in the fullest expression of one’s Sankalpa (intention) and in the fullest expression of their personal tapas. Through the principle of tapas, the heavy burdens of our past and worries of the future are burned away, and we begin anew: grounded, alive, and grateful, for this moment.
May all of us seek to incorporate the principle of tapas more fully in all aspects of our lives. May we recognize and learn more fully and deeply from those who have exemplified the principle of tapas in our lives. May we keep the fire of tapas always burning within us – in times of light and dark, yin and yang, bliss and pain.
I wish you love, happiness and hope, always.