Whenever any yoga teacher suggests that I set an intention or focus for my practice, without hesitation, this is my prayer and meditation, “Give me grace and strength”. I am not always asking for myself. Often it is so I have the strength to be there for others and the courage and grace to sit in their discomfort and therefore my own.
When someone asks us what we want to do when we grow up, not many of us stand up and say, “I want to learn how to sit in someone’s discomfort and pain!”
Although, not only do some of us choose careers which require it; physicians, nurses, hospice care, funeral directors, counselors, therapists, priests – the list goes on! ALL of us need to cultivate this life skill for ourselves and others, because each of us face the trials of illness, failed relationships, challenges at work and a myriad of other discomforts.
One of the ways this plays out in yoga is through Tapas. Tapas, is not the “small plate” style of dining, rather it means discipline, austerity, internal fire or heat. Tapas is the discipline it takes to arrive on your mat each day or to take the break you may need. It is austerity with our efforts. Tapas is our desire or internal fire to reach a goal, even though there may be heat building in our bodies, irritation in our minds or obstacles from outside sources.
Tapas, when well cultivated on our mats, lead to a steadfast, mindful and determined practice. It is what drives us to know more, to explore and to sit with the discomfort that inevitably arrives in our bodies and minds.
Cultivate Tapas by noticing which postures, teachers or classes you tend to avoid and begin there. As a matter of fact, try it off your mat as well. You can actively seek out something that annoys you as long as it is done with awareness and safety. When you are confronted with a thought, a posture or some other annoyance, simply notice. Be aware of the sensations it brings to your body and the thoughts that come to your mind. Use your breath in the discomfort, slow your inhales and exhales.
With your awareness placed squarely on the discomfort or annoyance, ask yourself:
- Am I safe?
- Is this really a problem or have I allowed my mind to define it as negative – based on old experiences?
Give yourself the space and time to choose what comes next. Sometimes backing off is what is necessary. Other times, being willing and able to explore the irritability will build your self-awareness. It will allow you to decipher whether you are motivated to avoid discomfort as a habit or whether you have truly met your edge. It will build your self-control. And lastly, it will give you the ability to support others when it is needed and to sit with them when they are struggling.