It is summer in Maine—real summer—sunny days, muggy nights, ocean breezes, thunderstorms, and intense heat. While it only lasts for a few weeks, the dog days of summer are challenging for us cold-blooded New Englanders, in part because of a lack of air conditioning, but also because it is difficult for our bodies to process and balance this heat for such a short time each year.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Niyamas, or personal observances, are laid out early in the eight limbs of yoga. Tapas is the third of these personal observances, and it translates both as discipline and passion, or fire. Whether we like it or not, it is tapas season, but how we manage this tapas determines whether we become anxious and angry at the excess fire or put it to good use. When channeled well, tapas allows us to create deep commitment and literally burn off what we are holding inside ourselves that is no longer serving us.
Tapas in asana can be felt on a physical level when we feel the burn in our quads during a long-held utkatasana or get a good sweat going during a vinyasa sequence. We may purposefully ignite our inner fire with ujjayi pranayama or stoke the flames of detoxification with kapalabhati, the breath of fire. But what does this fire actually do for us? It energizes. It purifies. It clears away everything that is not essential.
This heat we intentionally build through a yoga practice is a powerful way to commit to our true selves. It is a path toward more self-discipline and self-awareness. It is a catalyst for change. But it is not brutal, punishing, or lasting. It burns through. It burns off. And then what is left is you. What is left is grace.