In 1501 Michelangelo was commissioned to create the marble statue called David. When asked how he did it, he insisted that he didn’t create David. David was already present within the marble. Michelangelo said his job was simply to remove everything that was not David.
Our yoga practice is a way we remember our true identity. Yoga does not take a bunch of stressed-out, anxiety-ridden sinners and turn them into enlightened masters. Instead, yoga is a practice that affirms we humans are already healed, whole, and complete! Nothing need be added to us to make us somehow better than what we inherently are.
Like Michelangelo’s chisel, yoga removes everything that is not our true selves. Humans have emotions and experiences: fear, trauma, self-loathing, unhelpful thinking and behavior patterns. However, those emotions and experiences are not the truth of who we are. Like Michelangelo, our work is not to create something beautiful out of thin air, but to uncover the beauty that is already within.
Tapas: the fire of our devotion.
Tapas is said to be the “burning heat” of our yoga practice. This does not necessarily refer to the difficulty of the asana (posture) practice itself. We do not become more yogic by doing twenty sun salutations in a hot room or contorting our body into uncomfortable positions. After all, the definition of the word asana is, “to be seated comfortably upon the Earth.” Nor does tapas mean we do not rest in child’s pose when we are tired. Rather, tapas refers to our devotion to our practice and our willingness to continue to practice even when the going gets tough.
According to the Yoga Sutra, a yogic practice is one that we do with our whole hearts every day for many years. Tapas is a critical part of any yogic practice. For example, say our daily sadhana, or spiritual practice, is to sit in quiet meditation for ten minutes every morning. There may be many days that our practice feels inconvenient. Tapas is the devotion that allows us to see the difficulty in the process and still stay the course.
Because yoga is who and what we are, our yoga practices do not just stay on our mats and meditation cushions. They inform the way we live and interact with the world. Our lives provide ample opportunity to put our personal practice into action. We do not have to create additional tapas. The world, the people we encounter, and the situations we find ourselves in challenge us enough as-is! The yogi’s strength lies in choosing to remain open and connected even when faced with difficulty. That is tapas in action!
Doing and non-doing.
Hatha yoga is a balanced spiritual practice. In this context, the word hatha means “solar-lunar”. Yoga means “union” or “to unite”. Our solar-self is that part of us that initiates new activity and works hard to get things done. When we feel the burning intensity of our practice on or off our yoga mat, our first inclination may be to do something about it! However, sometimes the action we are guided to take is to take no action at all. Our lunar-self provides the space in which we rest, receive, and empty ourselves of our attachment to how we think things should play out. Instead, we surrender to the process of allowing whatever is being birthed in us, through us, and around us to unfold.
Yoga happens when the fluctuations of our mind become still. When we are in the state of yoga, we can think more clearly and make wise decisions. This allows us to discern whether a given situation requires us to be more active or more receptive, more solar or more lunar.
When we practice hatha yoga, we seek to bring the active and receptive parts of ourselves into balance. Yogic living is balanced living. Balance is not the same as stillness. When we live in balance, we live in such a way that we remain open and connected to ourselves, others, and the Numinous no matter what is going on around us. We become good partners in the dynamic stillness of the universal dance.