The Yoga of Sunscreen

On the very first day of my spring vacation this week, I slathered up the whole family in sunscreen and spent the morning at the beach. We played ball and built castles and collected shells and poked at dead jellyfish. By early afternoon it was clear that I had neglected sunscreening and I was completely burnt to a crisp. (Luckily the kiddos and hubs were spared!)

I really should have known better. My skin is stupid sensitive to sun and even though I was using SPF 50, it was my first exposure of the season to a bright and concentrated full-on dose of summer-like sun. Instead of relying on one application of sunscreen, I should have reapplied throughout the morning, or just put on more clothing!

Does this same kind of thing ever happen to you with yoga practice? You start out with what seems like appropriate preparation and self awareness but you get carried away and go too hot, too hard and don’t realize it until after the fact?

Some folks might say this is an example of too much tapas. (No, not those little Spanish appetizers. Though they are delicious!)

Tapas is one of the five niyamas of Patanjali’s Yoga SutrasThe word comes from the Sanskrit verb “tap” which means “to burn”. 

The traditional interpretation of this niyama is exactly as it sounds. You need fiery discipline to burn up the obstacles that are preventing you from being connected to your truest self. 

Tapas is often used to advocate for (externally) heated practices and also the kind of practices that require long holds or fast movement from one pose to the next to build internal heat. Now I love all of these kinds of asana practice as much as the next girl. I like it when yoga asana practice is hot and hard and flowy or some combination of all three. I like the kinds of thing that pushes me right to the edge. It really does feel like all the junk and obstacles are burned up and the way is clear. However, in excess, tapas can burn like an uncontrolled forest fire, taking the good and the bad with it. Or as some might say, burning your skin.

So too much sun is too much tapas? Maybe not. I think maybe my sunburn was an example of not enough tapas. Here’s why:

For a long time, I misunderstood the recommendation to practice with tapas as only possible if the yoga practice was difficult. In my head, someone who could perform a really hard pose must be more disciplined and by extension more knowledgeable and spiritually evolved.

Certainly you can feel a great sense of accomplishment and pride in being able to perform a difficult posture. And I think it’s safe to assume that most folks DO have to practice consistently to make big backbends or handstand or binds happen for their bodies. But not necessarily. Maybe those poses just come naturally to them, like compact hand balancing poses happen for me.

But even aside from all of that, why would being able to perform an unassisted drop back into wheel pose, for example, mean that person was wiser or a better yogi than someone who couldn’t do a drop back? That just sounds silly! But I’m telling you, I honestly thought that. And sometimes I still catch myself in that, especially when I look at pictures of yoga poses.

Difficulty alone does not transform or educate. Of course the path of change and self-discovery is often difficult. But many times for me, difficulty in asana is simply calling my ego. One of my favorite yoga sayings is, “Asana strengthens the ego; tread carefully.” (I think that is attributed to B.K.S Iyengar but now I can’t find the reference.) And another of my favorites is by Pattabhi Jois: “Do your practice and all is coming.”

The more useful way for me to experience the energy of tapas is as consistency. It’s not hard and hot all the time. It’s not me on my yoga mat hammering away at the most difficulty poses out there. But it is me on my mat. On a regular basis. 

Judith Hanson Lasater says, “For many years I mistook discipline as ambition. Now I believe it to be more about consistency. Do get on the mat. Practice and life are not that different. That’s a fundamental understanding.”

I think if we understand tapas as the practice of consistency, it is particularly transportable to life off the mat. It becomes the practice of approaching anything with a spirit of consistent attention. Like applying sunscreen, for example. Or you could think of tapas as the call to renew your commitment to your yoga practice this spring and then the follow through by showing up regularly.

Namaste, yogis!