Tapas and Agni: Transformative heat
by Jim Kulackoski
According to the ancient Vedic sciences of India, the entire universe is in a constant state of flux or action. This perpetual state of transformation is what makes existence possible, for when something ceases to evolve, it ultimately ceases to be – in a more familiar contemporary ideology: “If you are not growing, you are dying.” The Vedic ideas of agni and tapas are interrelated in this cosmic evolution.
In the Vedic interpretation, tapas in an intense drive or “burning desire” towards accomplishing something. It is an intense persistence or devotion to an idea that allows one to carry it out to completion. As one encounters a number of obstacles on the path to completing any task, they must ultimately transcend those obstacles in order to complete that task, leaving them a different person. In Tantric philosophy, tapas has another meaning: the internal heat generated during certain yogic practices. This heat is the result of the conversion of the body’s fundamental essence (ojas) into a refined form of prana, bio-energy used in the development of soma, a higher state of consciousness brought about by physiological integration. In both definitions, tapas is the catalyst for transformation.
The principle of transformation that occurs due to the “friction” created from the persistence of tapas is called agni. Because transformation is a necessary component in existence, agni is one of the most important devatas, or laws of nature.
Agni is an accelerated state of energy, the result of which is heat, and thus, agni and tapas are both associated with the idea of heat.
Sacred Fire: Purifying the spirit
by Paul Tootalian
Fire. by scientific definition, fire is a process of rapid oxidation that releases heat, light and energy. But with a makeup far more mysterious, fire is at the same time a wild force of nature, an element untamed. Why do so many religions and spiritual paths depict fire as a divine spirit enveloping us? Part spirit, part dancing deity, alive and breathing, fire symbolizes the sun, resurrection and transformation in action.
Inner fires invoke the archetypal reality of purification of the human spirit, an image that opens us up to deeper dimensions. Outer fires reflect this passion as they light the spiritual path, from the wildness fire pits of Native American ceremonies and flaming Shinto altars, to Christian shrines aglow in candlelight. In Plato’s ancient Allegory of the Cave, prisoners are chained in a cave, riveted by the flickering shadows of objects projected on the cave wall in the light of a fire. Misguided, the prisoners believe the shadows to be real, however, the fire itself represents reality’s true form.
This is the power of Hinduism’s agni, primordial fire, God aflame. “As a lamp in a windless place does not waver,” is how the Bhagavad Gita describes the focused, purified mind. India’s sacred text goes on to praise fire in the light of glorifying spiritual masters, who, “with the torchlight of knowledge,” opened eyes blinded by the darkness of ignorance. This is the sacredness of fire.
Tapas and the Fire Element
by Monica Yearwood
Ayurveda, the ancient system of natural healing, regards fire as a central life-giving source. Fire and its variants, light and heat, are used to describe internal processes within the body such as digestion and metabolism as well as mental acuity and emotional tendencies. We also generate fire and heat through spiritual discipline that benefits our intuition and connects us with the divine.
Fire sustains the entire planet, as the manifestation of the sun. Light, a byproduct of fire, illuminates our path and enables us to see. The sun, a primary source of fire for the entire universe and its inhabitants, dictates the daily practices that make up ayurvedic lifestyle, called dinacharya. Ayurveda teaches that practices such as waking up with the sunrise and eating our largest meal at midday, when the sun is at its strongest, offer numerous health benefits.
Ayurveda teaches that a sacred window opens just at sunrise and sunset each day, a time that supports deeper introspective practices such as meditation and yoga.
Meditation and yoga burn away karma and enhance the fire of intellect. Surya namaskar, often translated as “sun salutations,” is a specific set of yoga postures dedicated to the sun. This series strengthens the body, but also burns away toxins in the body and purifies the mind with its heat. Many of the physical practices in yoga are used to burn away impurities in the mind, blockages in the energetic channels and obstructions in the physical body.
Ayurveda sees the human body as a small microcosm of the universal body, thus the sun and its byproducts, including light and heat, can be found within our physiology. Ayurveda recognizes agni (fire) in the physical body as a primary facilitator of health.
Ayurvedic practitioners assess the function of agni in their clients through the assessment of the doshas. Vata types, who tend toward variability, need to maintain constant agni. These types are advised to adopt regularity in their eating and sleeping times. Pitta types, who tend toward excess agni, need to implement a cooling diet and herbs to protect themselves from a variety of heat-related disorders. Kapha types, who tend toward low agni, need to constantly stoke their internal fire with pungeant spices and regular fasting.
Each tissue in the body has a corresponding agni that regulates its proper metabolism. The jatharagni is the central, digestive fire in the body. Ayurveda describes four types of agni that regulate our digestion:
- visham (variable) agni, most common in vata types;
- tikshna (high) agni, most common in pitta types;
- manda (slow) agni, most common in kapha types;
- and sama (balanced) agni.
Appetite can assess the function of our digestive agni. If we are constantly hungry and seldom satisfied, our agni is tikshna. If we have lost interest in food, our agni is manda. If we continually lose and gain our appetite, our agni is potentially visham.
Ayurvedic practitioners teach breathing practices to help regulate prana (the life force), which in turn regulates the fires in the physical body. Some breathing practices can increase agni, burn away blockages and stimulate digestion. Other practices can reduce agni if it is too high, or regulate agni if it is inconsistent. If one’s breathing is complete, deep and unobstructed, it is a good sign that agni is functioning properly.
Tejas is the fire of the intellect, and the essence of pitta dosha. It enables correct perception, clarity and illumination, and is cultivated by spiritual study an concentration exercises. The yogic practice of trataka, for example, involves staring at a candle flame. By resisting the urge to blink, the body eventually produces special tears that wash the eyes, purify the perceptual senses and develop tejas.
We can assess the propensity of our tejas by observing the clarity with which we approach our activities. Tejas bestows confidence, faith and trust in our choices. It illuminates our path and allows us to correctly perceive impending obstacles. If the mind is marred with confusion, self-doubt and apprehension, most likely tejas has been dimmed.
Tapas is the heat produced from spiritual efforts. It is generated by our willpower, self-challenge and endurance. In a Vedic mythic story about the goddess Parvati and the god Shiva, Parvati falls in love with Shiva but is initially rejected by him. In her determination, she dedicates herself to spiritual austerities. She performs all the traditional mortifications, such as sitting in the flour fires in the middle of summer and standing on one leg for years. Parvati eventually exceeds all of the great sages in her efforts and generates so much tapas that the gods begin to get uncomfortable by her power. The gods beg Shiva to grant Parvati’s wish to be with him to get her to stop. The teaching of the story is that by generating tapas we are granted spiritual boons.
In spite of all of these positive connotations of fire, if uncontrolled, it can destroy. Excess fire, mostly related to pitta dosha, can burn the body and cause disease. Symptoms of heat such as skin inflammations, acne, liver toxicity and loose bowel movements are symptoms of excess pitta.
Unlike tejas, which creates illumination and clear perception, pitta dosha intensifies criticism, anger and desire to control. In general, pitta types are most susceptible toward these imbalances, which can be remedies by Ayurvedic lifestyle programs. Damaging inner fires can be reduced through a cooling and drying diet. Bitter leafy greens such as Swiss chard and kale reduce pitta’s oily and hot qualities. Coriander seed, chamomile and aloe can be taken internally if pitta is provoking digestive heat. Turmeric can assist with calming the irritability and control of a pitta-type liver.
The heat, humidity and longer periods of light in summer provoke pitta dosha and expose all types to excess pitta. The earth provides the antidote by offering an array of cooling fruits and vegetables. A higher carbohydrate diet from fruits provides the energy required for heightened physical activity. Swimming, sitting in the shade and avoiding outdoor exercise in the strong, midday sun can help everyone stay in balance.
Tepid Tapas: Finding the heat without getting burned
by Trayci Handelman
For years I over-chaturanga’d. “Over,” as in over the limit in how many a yogi should do in a class, a day, a month; over the limit that a mortal shoulder could take. “Over,” as in overused until the rips that I had created in my shoulder had to be sewn and screwed into my rotator cuff with metal anchors. Now I am conservative with the chaturanga and realize I have tendencies to over-chaturanga in other ways.
Tapas (Sanskrit for “heat”) is the third niyama, or spiritual observance, in the Yoga Sutras. It refers to the “burning off” of negative energies in order to follow a true path of spiritual devotion. Within our society the mere mention of fire, burn or heat tends to lead to thoughts of the extreme and excess – the idea that more must be better. For yogis, this can mean hotter classes, more workshops, more studios, harder arm balances, crazier sequences. Why do we push ourselves to excess, instead of finding a place of comfort before the burnout?
“Too much of everything is just enough” comes to mind, a lyric from a Grateful Dead song. We have been programmed to want more, bigger, stronger, hotter. Yet any niyama should be considered within the context of all five of these concepts. The interesting part about the niyamas is that they intertwine, lean on each other, even reference each other, in very subtle ways. Santosha, another niyama, means contentment, to be satisfied and grateful that what you have is enough. Svadhyaya speaks of self-study, specifically pertaining to gaining more knowledge to deepen the understanding of the self.
In the Yoga Sutras, the true meaning of discipline and purification is for the greater purpose of contentment and spiritual growth/devotion. Can we use these niyamas without burning out or overdosing on the notions? This answer, like most answers in all areas of yoga – spiritual, physical, emotional – is found within ourselves.
Find the tapas – the thing that lights you up from the inside. Tap into it. Follow it, trust it, commit to it. If it starts to burn you, or worse – starts to fade you or weaken you – pause. Breathe and reflect. Is it too much, too soon, too intense? Only you will know. Follow that inner fire, the internal tapas, and more than likely you will never get burned. This is actually referred to as Mati, one of the 10 original niyamas, developing a cognitive, spiritual will. Yoga is about self-acceptance, not self-improvement. If we can keep focusing in, rather than seeking out, the answers should never be farther than the corners of our mat.
Tapas Tunes: Songs that sing of summer
- Orange Sky, Alexi Murdoch
- Southern Sun, Boy & Bear
- Summer Breeze, Seals & Crofts
- Hard Sun, Eddie Vedder
- Sunshine (Go Away Today), Jonathan Edwards
- Rain in the Summertime, The Alarm
- Fired Up!, Funky Green Dogs
- Blinded by the Light, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
- Sun Light, MC Yogi
- Burn it in the Fire, Wade Morissette
- The Sound of Sunshine, Michael Franti & Spearhead
- The Boys of Summer, Don Henley
- She’s a Rainbow, The Rolling Stones
- Desert Rose, Sting
- Follow the Sun, Xavier Rudd
- Hearts on Fire, Passenger
- Long Time Sun, Girish
- Soak Up The Sun, Sheryl Crow
- Over the Rainbow, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole