Yoga for Climate Action: Tapas

In the coming years, we will need to hold onto a complex hope that never forgets the damage being done, and keeps sight of the huge number of people stepping up to fix it.

-May Boeve


I’m finally getting somewhere with tapas today, the niyama I’ve long ambivalently meant to write about. Now I’m writing from my bed on the inauguration day of an administration that hates what I value and wants to destroy the things I’ve spent my activist and creative life working to protect. I passed on my ride to Washington DC because of chronic physical pain, the kind of pain that led me to yoga in the first place, now the pain that’s interfering with my ability to just get on with anything at all.

This latest episode began in post-election November, by far the longest and most severe flare-up since the very first one 16 years ago. Am I back where I started? Are we back where we started? Is it time to give up? Any time when I haven’t been marching, teaching, or fulfilling obligations, I’ve been lying down (or wishing I could lie down). The idea of writing about tapas, the fire of intensity that burns away impurities and powers practice, has been mocking me as I gingerly draw one knee toward my chest at a turtle’s pace. As I stay home during the largest march on Washington in years, while my partner and friends road trip without me.

A mistake activists and students of yoga make is believing that fiery discipline means constant activity. I should know; I’ve believed that and beaten myself up for not living up to my expectations, both in yoga and activism, for as long as I’ve practiced either. And so this is where I find myself. It wasn’t so hard to give up Washington. I was sorry not to be with my partner and those friends, but my intuition had also told me that the local event was where I should be, beginning together in Chicago as we mean to go on. I have found it harder to let go of my physical expectations and say this is the help I need and the rest I need, and I don’t know how long this will last or where I’ll arrive on the far side of it.

The most difficult thing to create, and certainly sustain, in both the physical and political trial, is a steady, clear vision of where we actually are, where I actually am, instead of where I would wish to be. Not being reawakened again and again by the horror of the situation, badly surprised by each new cabinet appointment, public statement, or shock of pain down my back or leg, but steadily aware of the circumstances of the moment and their impacts. From impartial (meaning both unbiased and whole) observation, I can act. From a partial, passive, overambitious or under-informed observation I can only react: at best, ineffective. At worst, painful and destructive.

I’ve been reading Mr. Iyengar to my classes again lately, and these passages have been on my mind:

Sometimes our body is willing, but our mind is weak and says ‘we don’t have time,’ or ‘Forget it, it’s not worth the effort.’ Sometimes it is our mind that is willing, but our body is weak and says, ‘I’m really too tired for all this trouble.’ A practitioner must focus between the mind and the body, listening to the counsel of each, but letting the intelligence and the soul make the true decision, for this is where real will power and dedication are found. Do to your capacity while always striving to extend your capacity.

I love his plural possessive ‘our body.’

Do you have a problem part that makes the practice difficult for you? An injured knee? A stiff back? That is your problem child. Learn how to deal with it and how to nurture it, as you would a child who had problems that needed extra love and attention.

It’s clear he’s not saying that we simply need to learn how to do more of what we hate doing. There is no grin and bear it here, in practice or in life. If there were no love, we wouldn’t be bothered to do it at all. He’s describing ambivalence and obstacles.

We feel ambivalently toward what we love, toward that which takes effort, time, and that which will bring change. This is natural even if we consciously want that change. Tapas is how we confront and challenge ambivalence, not how we force ourselves to do more than we are able. Seeing more clearly is the practice; dispassionate, consistent observation. Self observation and paying close, truthful attention to the world unfolding around us is how we take each necessary, appropriate action.

Physical obstacles are not obstacles in the yogic way of thinking. Through the discipline of tapas I see my injury isn’t an obstacle to practice, it’s an instance of my craving (for grace, pleasure, youth, strength, the asana practice I’m used to) wedged up against my aversion (from pain, fear, suffering, death) in an uncomfortable way. Tapas is seeing this situation for what it is in my mind, my body, and in the open, quiet place inside myself, and doing what is possible within that situation to alleviate suffering and gain insight. Part of the suffering is alleviated with gentle knee to chest, knee to the side. Part of the suffering is alleviated when I see my fears and desires more clearly. And part of it is still very much with me for who knows how long. Today tapas takes place in my bed. Tomorrow, in Grant Park with thousands of friends around me.

Most people want to take joy without suffering. I will take both. See how far suffering takes me. When you do not resist suffering, you will make friends with other people who suffer. I suffered a lot in my own body. Now when someone tells me of his sufferings, I feel in my body what that suffering is. My personal experience provides me with great love and compassion. So I say, “My friend, let me try and do something.” Pain comes to guide you. When you have known pain, you will be compassionate. Shared joys cannot teach us this.

-BKS Iyengar



  1. Pingback: Yoga for Climate Action: Svadyaya | grandgather

  2. Pingback: Yoga of Climate Action: Yama and Niyama | grandgather

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