Tapas – Purification
You could think of it as spring cleaning. A universal chore, it’s practiced yearly. It marks the change from winter to spring. It represents the shift from darkness and shorter days to extended periods of light and activity. All of us may not participate, but most would agree that it’s a good idea! On a deeper level, tapas relates to spirituality and freedom.
In Sanskrit, India’s ancient language and the basis of its spiritual heritage, tapas means heat or ardor. It’s a state of passionate zeal with commitment to rigorous purification practices.
The goal is to reach a higher state of being, transcending the physical body. This spiritual state of enlightenment is called moksha or liberation. In the yoga tradition, these austere practices of tapas include the physical discipline of asana, or poses. Menu restrictions and fasting are also required. The internal journey invites extended periods of chanting and prayer. Called mantra practice, it is the repetition of sacred sounds. Meditation and extended periods of seclusion are in the mix, as well.
In a sense, we’ve all been practicing some form of tapas for many months. This “Year of Covid” has demanded great sacrifice for so many.
We are now in the Christian Lenten season leading up to Easter. We are reminded of Jesus’ journey in preparation for his ultimate sacrifice. Many believe that Jesus’ missing years, between the ages of 12 and 30, were spent in India. There he traveled, preached and studied Buddhism. I’ve had conversations about this, one with a Catholic academic on the University of San Diego faculty. She agreed that there is a growing receptivity to this premise. While there is evidence supporting this belief, the subject remains controversial. Regardless, how Jesus prepared both for his ministry and crucifixion included periods of severe discipline. Countless biblical references point to his journey of seclusion and fasting, deep contemplation and prayer – tapas.
This common thread to pause, purify and reflect, runs through all cultures and spiritual traditions.
The Jews observe Passover in recognition of their historic suffering, bondage and liberation. It is a time to honor those who sacrificed as well as to celebrate their endurance. Muslims have Ramadan, a month which includes fasting and renunciation as well as periods of reflection and prayer. This powerful symbol of unity brings family and friends together in their shared faith. Navaratri in the Hindu tradition is honored seasonally. Nine days are dedicated to the Divine Feminine in her various images. Hindus observe this time by fasting in the form of a restricted diet. They also honor these individual Goddesses, each having distinct powerful attributes and through a daily ritual of mantras and meditation.
While the dates vary among these yearly practices, the ones I’ve referenced take place around the Spring Equinox. They all have elements of ancient pagan practices honoring seasonal changes. The recognition that we are part of nature, not separate from. They help us appreciate our connection to the cosmos and the bounty that Mother Earth provides. They are all sacred and necessary to the wholeness of us. We are inextricably connect. Our physical existence is sustained by a power greater than us.
However we may be drawn to participate, this season and these traditions remind us that the yoga practice of tapas – with the intent of purification, has meaning and purpose.
It all starts with our mind. Our thoughts, turn into words. Those words become actions and form. This season offers us the opportunity to recommit to positivity and mindfulness. Yoga provides a template for cleansing our thoughts and brings a higher purpose to our lives.