TAPAS : DISCIPLINE
Tapas also means austerity, or to burn. Tapas is the work of staying with something, especially when inevitable challenges, sacrifices and difficulties arise. The practice of tapas allows us to discover our stamina and our resilience.
One of my favorite quotes comes from the French philosopher Albert Camus:
“In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love. In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile. In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm. I realized, through it all, that in the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”
Anyone who has loved, lost, and loved again, knows this well.
One of the more difficult transitions from the Northeast to New Mexico was losing my sense of self. I had said often back in Brooklyn, when I was teaching yoga full time, that I did not want to be attached to the identity of being a yoga teacher. I wanted whatever it was that I offered to be unattached to one particular vehicle. I hoped that what I had to give was so vast that it could occupy any profession, any life role, any situation that might come my way.
When we moved to New Mexico, I thought teaching yoga would be a valuable asset to the retreat center we were trying to build. I believe in the power of community and thought one of the quickest ways to build it would be to start teaching in Santa Fe. Which was an hour and a half away.
Teaching a few classes a week at a studio so far from your home, is not the same as teaching in your local neighborhood. Back in New York and New Hampshire, the same people I would see in class would be the same people I would see at the grocery store or at the coffee shop. I could linger after class, answer questions, maybe go for a walk with a student or sit in the park. I could take other teachers’ classes, sub at the last minute, participate in events happening in the evening or over the weekend. Living 90 miles away made a lot of those vital interactions next to impossible.
Also, I was needed back at my other job. Starting up a retreat center, especially one that includes renovating 88,000 square feet of buildings, is no small matter. I did not realize how much of my time and energy would be required by tasks I initially felt were “not mine”. It was mostly just my husband and I, project managing a small crew and executing a vision with many moving parts, many not in our control. Next thing I knew, I was in charge of receiving shipments for building supplies. I was doing inventory for lightbulbs, windows, flooring, nightstands, lamps, mirrors, mattresses, toilets, showerstalls, you name it. I was supervising contract workers and applying for permits. I was cleaning bathrooms, making beds, washing floors, folding 75 guests worth of linens. I was putting together furniture, testing paint colors, making runs to the hardware store, pleading with plumbers, cleaners and electricians. I was organizing donations of old equipment to local schools. I was giving prospective renters three hour tours of the property.
A lot of the time, I felt like this work was taking me away from my “real” work of teaching. But that wasn’t going so great either. Sometimes I would drive all the way to Santa Fe and just one student would show up. I honestly was quite thrilled to be teaching regardless of how many people were there, but I would be lying if I didn’t say it was humbling to go from teaching packed classes with waitlists, to teaching classes where I’m pretty sure no one knew my name.
Tapas can be when you are in a challenging yoga pose, and you stay in the pose anyway because you know your breath is still steady. Tapas can be choosing to sit still in meditation just another moment longer, even though your mind is racing and your legs are numb. Tapas can be waking up at 6 am (or 4) for yoga, even though it’s hard.
Tapas can also be the burning of spending most of your adult life being pretty confident you know who you are, to one day questioning who that person really is.
What if who I thought I was was just dependent on being surrounded by a community that reflected that same sense of self back to me? What happens if my new community doesn’t see me that way? What if that person was just a phase of my life? Am I still a teacher if I had no physical students? More importantly, who and where is this me I spoke of back in Brooklyn – the one who was still giving something of value to the world, regardless if she was teaching or not?
It really did feel like a burning. I hadn’t just fallen into teaching accidentally. When I was in my early twenties, I had some pretty intense conversations with god about wanting to find my purpose in life, and was committed to finding a way to make any specific talents I might have useful in the world. Although I had been teaching yoga since I was 23, I did not take it seriously as that specific vehicle until I was in my mid thirties. By then I had come to realize there was some unstoppable driving force behind it, not rationally dependent on income, time, or success. I just kept wanting to teach and it seemed like it was having a positive affect (I think, I hope) on the people around me.
In the Yoga Sutras, the chapter following the one with the yamas and niyamas is called Vibhuti. The word Vinbhuti means ash, as in the ash at the end of a fire. It is referring to the accomplishments or the results of the hard work and discipline practice requires.
It took a year, but I slowly started rediscovering the parts of me that were meant to go, and the parts that were meant to endure. In the fall of last year I hosted a “Sneak Peak” retreat. 30 students from my life back east gathered together in a partially renovated retreat center in the northern New Mexican desert for a few days of yoga and togetherness. I felt the familiar glow in my heart again. I started offering yoga classes to the local community around Valmora. I felt my heart glow again. I committed to those classes down in Santa Fe, found some students who didn’t mind my dharma talks and chanting. I felt my heart glow again.
Remember when I said, after my job at the retreat center was dissolved in March, that I was feeling more free? My sense of self had started to come back prior to being let go, but now it felt like it had infinite room to expand. Through the fire, I came to understand that teaching yoga doesn’t define who I am. But it is a big part of who I am. It’s part of my ash. I came to accept that it’s ok if you find out you have a talent for something, to pursue it and make more room for it in your life. I came to appreciate that it’s quite beautiful if you love something and share it, and if other people just happen to love it too.
Along with this recognition, there has been more freedom to be other things too. I look back at the feelings I had around what was “my work” and what was not. I sense that in fiercely trying to protect something I felt slipping away, I was building up walls trying to defend it. Feeling in my body again, quite literally, I have noticed space for more things to define who I am. Wife. Step-mom. Child. Sister. Aunt. Friend. Colleague. Writer. Sometimes Bathroom Cleaner. Sometimes Family Accountant. Sometimes Retreat Center Builder. And Whatever Comes Next. And yes, still a Yoga Teacher.