2.1 Accepting pain as help for purification, study, and surrender to the Supreme Being constitute Yoga in practice. [Patanjali]
No one wants to suffer, yet the first word from Sri Patanjali in the section on Yoga practice is tapas, “accepting pain.” He gives prominent position to an attitude, a way of perceiving and responding to the experiences of life. We are challenged to engage life actively with an outlook that may seem far-fetched: that anything that happens – no matter how painful – can be used for spiritual growth. In some way, although not always readily apparent, everything truly is for the good – our good. Tapas is not resignation, a passive submission to the sorrows of life; it is the embracing of pain as friend and teacher.
Tapas begins to make sense only when we understand that pain—psychological or physical—is a sign that we have encountered a limitation in ourselves. Stretch a muscle beyond the limits of its tissues, and we feel pain. Push the mind beyond the limits of what it perceives to be just and proper, and we experience suffering. But to be free, we need to overcome our limitations. They need to be exposed, examined, and uprooted (a process, by the way, that is greatly aided by study and surrender to God). However, while some of our shortcomings are apparent, many others remain hidden in the subconscious, where they do their mischievous work. Tapas helps uncover hidden shortcomings by forcing them to surface in the conscious mind.
Taken with the right understanding, suffering can bring forth the effort to overcome limitations. It also stimulates introspection and inspires creativity. For example, it can help us find fresh, meaningful ways to convince and entice ourselves to sit for daily meditation or to uncover a lesson hidden in our chronic disease that will bring us peace of mind. Of course, adhering to the “no pain, no gain” philosophy is difficult while we are hurting. Day after day, opportunities arise to practice acceptance, but instead we find ourselves caught up in resistance, anger, or depression. In the name of tapas, seekers expend great energy struggling to reconcile their beliefs with their own shortcomings and the disappointing realities of life. But the struggle is not fruitless; it brings us to a deeper self-knowledge and a truer understanding of life.
Tapas is not simply a patient, if unsettling, wait for painful events to come along so that they can be accepted. It can also be a voluntary act of will, a choice to embark knowingly on a path that might bring discomfort and challenge before producing its benefits. Fasting is a example of a voluntary practice of tapas. Some yogis willingly accept the discomfort of hunger one day a week as a help in purifying the body and strengthening the mind. The practice of tapas might also take the form of a shy person studying public speaking, someone who fears heights taking a ride on a Ferris wheel, or an individual who feels clumsy signing up for a class in tap dance.
Tapas also refers to the effort to be regular in the Yoga practices and to live a yogic lifestyle. For example, a comfy bed can beckon us to continue sleeping when the alarm signals the dawn of a new day. The effort – the inner voice coaxing us to get up, the exercise of the will, the mind’s reminder that meditation promises great benefits to us, the prayer to God to help us leave the bed – all this is part of the practice of tapas.
We’ve talked about tapas as the struggle to understand and accept that life’s trials have value for us. What can we expect from perfection in this practice? What does the practice of tapas ultimately bring the seeker? Obviously, the ability to endure and overcome problems strengthens the will. But that’s not the whole story. Far from being a pessimistic resignation to suffering, tapas is the embrace of the entirety of life. Tapas is the foundation of an intimate relationship with the intelligence that animates life. This relationship gives birth to wisdom, the certain knowledge – a steadfast faith – that the peace and joy of the inner Self is stronger and more enduring than any pain that life may bring. Through perfection in tapas, the fear that life is devoid of wisdom vanishes. Wisdom, faith, and fearlessness – these are the fruits of tapas.
Reverend Jaganath Carrera has shared the joy and wisdom of the Yoga Sutras with thousands of students for over three decades. He has taught all facets of Yoga at universities, prisons, Yoga centers, and interfaith programs. He established the Integral Yoga Ministry and is a spiritual advisor and visiting lecturer on Hinduism for the One Spirit Seminary in New York City. Jaganath is a former chief administrator of Yogaville and founded the Integral Yoga Institute of New Brunswick, NJ. He served as Dean of Academics at the Eastern School of Acupuncture and is a member of its Governing Board. A senior member of the Integral Yoga Teachers Council, he co-developed the highly regarded Integral Yoga Meditation and Raja Yoga Teacher Training Certification programs.
(from Inside the Yoga Sutras: A Comprehensive Source-book for the Study and Practice of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras by Reverend Jaganath Carrera, reprinted in the February, 2007 IYTA Newsletter)