The last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the “life-cycle” of the soul. Think back to who you were 10 years ago: it’s likely that you were struggling with different issues, had different friendships or relationships, and thought about life in a less mature way than you do now. This process of self-transformation and growth is a profoundly important aspect of the human condition – though it is, unfortunately, not always easy. In fact, our most important self-insights are often the result of our deepest struggles. Times of difficulty and challenge force us to reevaluate ourselves and how we are living our lives. This doesn’t mean that life should consist solely of suffering, however! Ideally, we would go through life experiencing modest challenges – challenges which spur the growth process but which do not deplete us physically, mentally, or emotionally.
The ultimate goal of yoga is profound, long-lasting self-transformation. In fact, it is this commitment to self-transformation which is the defining aspect of a yoga practice. If you are newer to yoga, this commitment may be to physical self-transformation (getting stronger, leaner, more flexible, etc.). Over time, however, this commitment may expand and broaden to encompass self-transformation in your mental life (quieting the constant chatter of the mind), emotional life (less stress, more serenity), or spiritual life (discovering your purpose in this world, etc.). In yoga, we take on modest challenges which push us to grow and evolve as yogis and as human beings. For example, a modest challenge could be the attempt to do a new and difficult asana (pose) during class. It could be a commitment to sit for 5 minutes a day and meditate. It could mean cutting out processed foods from your diet. Or, it could be a challenge on a deeper level: forgiving someone who has hurt you, for example, or letting go of unhealthy messages you tell yourself.
Challenge usually causes us to feel frustration, anxiety, or anger, and we need to exert a certain amount of personal effort to deal with and overcome it. These emotions and efforts are “heating” in nature. In yoga, there is a word for the heat that results from dealing with challenge: tapas. You might have heard yoga teachers use the word tapas to refer to the heat that is generated when doing a sweaty practice in a hot room. But tapas is actually much more profound than working up a sweat! Tapas literally means “glow” or “heat,” and it refers to the internal fire that we feel when we are dealing with anything that challenges us – be it a difficult pose, sitting still for 10 minutes, or being nice to someone who rubs us the wrong way.
This week, I invite you to think about an area of your life that you would like to transform. What modest challenge could you introduce to promote that transformation? It doesn’t have to be a profound change – it could be as simple as applying for one job if you’ve been wanting a career change. Or going out of your way to be nice to someone who has been bothering you. Notice how you deal with the tapas, or mental/emotional heat, which results from this challenge. In the end, acknowledge that growth is not always a comfortable process, and that this tapas is a necessary part of your evolution as a human being. I’m including a cooling pranayama (breathing) technique below, which will help with any tapas this generates.
As always, please know how grateful I am to have you, my friends, students, and readers, in my life.
In peace and with love,
Cooling breathing technique:
Energetically speaking, yogis believe that the right side of the body is associated with the sun (surya), or heating quality. Conversely, the left side of the body is associated with the moon (chandra), or cooling quality. This pranayama, or breathing technique, should be used when you feel any kind of discomfort, frustration, or heat associated with this week’s tapas exercise. It can also be used when you feel over-heated physically, mentally, or emotionally and need to “cool down.”
Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position with the spine straight. Place the left palm on the left thigh and bend the right elbow. Curl the pointer and middle fingers into the palm, leaving the thumb, ring finger, and pinky finger extended. You will use the thumb to close the right nostril and the ring finger to close the left. Rather than closing at the base of the nostril, press the area right under the bony cartilage (in the middle of the nose).
To begin, take several deep breaths through both nostrils. Then use the thumb to close the right nostril, and inhale deeply through the left nostril. Pause at the top of the inhale, closing both nostrils briefly. Then close the left nostril with the ring finger and exhale through the right nostril. Repeat like this for approximately 3 minutes, then rest quietly with both hands on your lap for several minutes, feeling the effects of the pranayama practice.