Monday, 18 April 2011

The Art of Tapas: Through Yoga, Birth and Life

Today I am acutely aware of every single muscle in my body because they all ache. After not managing to get to a yoga class (and by god there's no space on the boat to do it!) for approximately 2 months, I threw myself in at the deep end and attended a whole day workshop plus my normal ashtanga class this weekend. On top of that I've still not got back into it properly after having baby Earthly no. 2 so I am well down on my performance.

And while I know I shouldn't beat myself up about that, it's really hard not to. Not only is my stamina and general ability lowered, but I find that my post-pregnant body has changed: I now find some asanas a lot more difficult or uncomfortable. I find this strange as post-first-birth I really didn't notice much difference (other than the obvious lack of core muscles!). 

However, Richard Adamo's workshop was the perfect place for me to start. He talked of two tenets of the Eight Limbs of Yoga: Tapas - 'heat', perseverence, austerity - and Samtosa - contentment. He explained that whilst we should work hard in our practice, with 'heat', we should remain mindful and balance our desire to do our best with also being content with our own personal achievements, however small they may seem from the outside. The idea is not to feel as if we must force ourselves into the 'perfect' position, but work with our own bodies and minds to achieve what we can, and to be happy with that.

And it struck me that this was not just a yoga lesson but that these principles are applicable across the board. In particular the idea of Tapas resonated with my feelings on giving birth naturally. I have long felt in my yoga practice that what keeps me going - whether it's the 56th sun-salute of the day or sinking into a position even deeper with every breath) is a burning desire to do the best my body is capable of, regardless of the protests issuing in my mind. It was exactly the same feelings I had when giving birth. I could so easily have given into the fear, the pain, but at my core I didn't want to and I focussed instead on every moment (not the goal, for if we look to the top of a hill whilst climbing it, we feel like giving up) and every breath. And by doing that, as in a yoga posture, you achieve almost without realising. Through both births this is what I experienced. Gently forcing myself into breathing through every moment, every contraction, every inner doubt and every screaming thought of "I can't do this!" until, suddenly, I had done it, and there, being passed up between my legs, was the proof!

I feel strongly that we could use the idea of Tapas more in our everyday lives. I would love to see this kind of empowering talk being brought into antenatal sessions. Crazy idea? I don't think so. Because you know what? Giving birth is not so much about anatomy or how apart the contractions are or even how fit you are; it's about a mindset. Getting yourself into that alpha state where you are free, without external distractions, to do your animal thing. And most importantly, to believe in yourself, your body to do this. That is the bit most women (and partners!) need drilled into them. We are surrounded in our culture with negativity - about birth, about the economy, about our purpose in life - and that needs to be balanced out before we can relinquish ourselves wholly to the task in hand.

Of course it's so easy to take the principle of Tapas and use it to be hard on ourselves - or worse, to judge others. Emma Silverman, over in The Joy of Yoga, warns us that:
"The balance of contentment and effort is important in asana practice. If we force (in life and in asana) we often do more harm than good. As teachers, it's important to stay mindful of how we move our students into asana. Instead of demonstrating or cueing students to the 'ideal' or most advanced level of any given pose and then giving modifications, start gently and give advancements."
Work within your own limitations; learn to balance true effort with contentment at your own small achievements; be happy with the results. A wise lesson indeed.

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