My favorite Hindu myth involving the sages Vasistha and Vishvamitra entails a lesson in tapas, “inner heat.” In my simplified version of the story, Vasistha gets mad and curses Vishvamitra to become a heron. Vishvamitra retaliates by cursing Vasistha into a crane. As a heron and a crane these sages began to fight. Tearing at each others’ throats and flapping their wings, they topple down mountains, destroy living creatures, and knock the earth over. The Hindu god, Brahma, witnesses the devastation these two are causing and strips them of their bird natures. When they calm down, Brahma chastises the sages and exclaims “You are both creating obstacles to your tapas by your passionate anger, so give it up!” The two sages, ashamed, hug each other in forgiveness.
Tapas, often translated to mean “inner heat,” or “fiery discipline” is a tool to achieve personal and spiritual enlightenment. Tapas is sometimes considered a rigid practice of castigation and severe discipline, yet, according to T.K.V. Desikachar in The Heart of Yoga, tapas is not penance but “the process of inner cleansing” by building heat through asanas (poses) and pranayama (breathwork). Like Desikachar, when I hear the word tapas I do not associate it with austere, strict, and rigid behavior. Rather, I connect tapas with the consistent flow of energy generated through our thoughts, the beat of our heart, and the intention of our actions. I believe tapas to be the perseverance and faith we dedicate to our path.
As humans, we have wishes, we create goals, we dream of desired outcomes, and from these dreams we brew the energy needed to transition our dreams into reality. Yet, as humans, in one way or form, we also experience mesmerizing enchantments that tempt us away from our path. In the story of Vasistha and Vishvamitra these two sages fall from their path. Like us, they get seduced by emotion and thoughts. We all get swept away and tapas is the energetic force that helps us realign our focus with our heart.
We can spend so much of our life being angry, blaming others, and all this external focus will only result in destroying ourselves. As fire burns things up,our energy can burn us up, burn us out, or fuel us; we need to harness our energy and direct it in a mindful manner. We must speak, listen, and act as if everything we do has significance. We must act as if our hearts are beams of light and what we direct into the world, good or bad, will be absorbed by the people meet, the trees we see, and the air we breathe. When Brahma scolded the two sages, he scolded them for generating such heat in negativity: what we think, we can become. Our own energy is the power that can steer us. Like Vasistha and Vishvamitra, we can allow it to overpower us in devastating ways or we can open ourselves up to the bright potential that lies within us.
Desikachar, T.K.V.. The Heart of Yoga: Developing A Personal Practice. Rochester: Inner Traditions, 1995. Print.
**Previously published at www.yogabhoga.com**