By Thomas Amelio
If you are reading this, you probably hear the word “transformation” a lot. You may have gotten involved in books, media, and programs that promise it. But what is transformation? How do we know when it has happened? How do you initiate genuine and lasting change?
The Fire Element and Tapas
In yoga philosophy, as with Alchemy, transformation is most often associated with the symbolic element of fire. Heat makes ice transform from its rigid condition, back to its fluid state of water; it can then turn water into steam freeing the moist air to float to a cooler altitude into the clouds where, with the right conditions, it might form droplets heavy enough to fall down as rain. The cycle of transformation is constantly happening in all sorts of ways. The science of yoga aims for a transformation that is physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.
An important aspect of yoga is Tapas—regular practices that free us from bondage to habits, addictions, and their attendant suffering.
Tapas, in Sanskrit, means “to heat,” and refers to any spiritual practice (or sadhana) that seeks to set fire to that which obstructs our real nature. In Vedic philosophy our real nature is called Brahman which signifies an ultimate reality transcendent to our intellect and senses, and also called Atman, when associated with an individual. The real nature of the Atman is said to be Sat-Chit-Ananda. Sat meaning ‘existence or truth, Chit meaning consciousness that existence, and Ananda—joy or bliss. It represents a full human blossoming: “I exist (Sat) —I awaken to be aware I exist (Chit) and finally ‘ah, the joy (Ananda) of this existing and knowing!’”
When we, through the purifying power of Tapas, become fully awake to our true nature as Sat-Chit-Ananda, and embody it on all levels, we are said to have achieved Moksha (liberation)—freedom from all the karmas that obstructed realization. This is the ultimate in transformation.
The yogis and rishis (seers) taught that this liberation cannot realized through intellectual or intuitive insight—but must happen fully on the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical levels. All must be purified of karmas—i.e. stored suffering as a result of taking actions based on an ignorance of our real nature.
Our Practice Frees Us from Ignorance, to Realize Our True Nature
The Vedic wisdom teaches that we are, in actuality, connected in a vast unity of consciousness—just as, physically, we all exhale and inhale into the same interconnected physical ecosystem. When we forget who we are, however, we do dumb stuff to avoid the inevitable pain that arises. We hurt ourselves, we hurt others, we lie, we manipulate, we acquire harmful habits, and even become addicted to things we know are bad for us, all due to ignorance of our own nature. This ignorance needs to go, because it will create an unending cycle of suffering. (Samsara).
So, we first need to address this primal ignorance (avidya) then work on freeing ourselves of the karmas or obstructive conditionings that keep us bound to suffering and unhappiness. (The conditionings are also called Samskaras—which are not to be confused with Samsara!—see above paragraph.)
What Binds You and What Frees You?
What are you bound to that you would like to change? Which habits, ways of thinking, self-sabotaging patterns? What disturbs your peace, generates regular stress, or triggers painful reactions in you? What longings, callings, inspirations do you habitually not listen to, or if you do listen, ignore?
Merely trying to change our thinking is not enough to purify our self-limiting and painful karmic patterns. Wanting is not enough. Self-improvement books and inspirational quotes on social media are popular because they offer an instant hit, and we can get a ‘high” on the mere possibility of change. Real spirituality helps us to face our limitations, suffering, and darkness, and puts out a welcome mat for the truth. Remember truth (Sat) is part of our real nature, practicing it is uncomfortable up front, but delivers joy (Ananda) in the end.
Transformation on Three Levels
We need to engender transformation on all three levels of our being. In yoga, each of these levels are conceived of as a “body” (sharir). They are: the Causal body (deep unconscious or super-conscious aspect, where the subtlest seeds of karma are stored); the Subtle body (our energetic, imaging, conceptual, astral, dreaming and emotional aspects); and the Gross body (our physical body.)
We accomplish this three-level change through regular consistent practices that, over time, free us of our limited karmas and help awaken us from ignorance to the realization of our true nature. This is the primary aim of yoga practice and Tapas.
Yoga’s premise is that evolution is not an action to be done, but rather allowed, and we need to prepare ourselves and purify our three bodies— so that the evolutionary fire can do its work unimpeded.
This is good news! On a daily basis we can engage in ever more satisfying practices that purify the physical body; the nadis and chakra system (psychic nerve and energy centers in the subtle body) and awaken awareness of the fine, tiny strands of karma on the causal level—all so that we become a vehicle for the divine purifying agent—prana: or in some schools called the kundalini force.
Abhyas: Constant Practice
There is a principle in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras called abhyasa-—constant or regular practice. Just as one who seeks to master the piano does scales daily, we need to practice even on days when we don’t “feel like it” and the “highs” aren’t there. One teacher told me it’s like throwing a ball into the air daily, eventually it flies beyond the field of gravity and you can then “float” on the bliss of spiritual success! In actuality the benefits of daily practice are so great and so frequent that once you establish it, you will experience frequent rewards along the way.
Current brain science teaches that habits create actual grooves in the brain. New grooves can only be created by consistent creation of new habits that reward us more than our old ones. The principle of Tapas is similar.
Is engaging a regular Tapas practice easy? —not always.
Are the rewards worth it? ABSOLUTELY.
How to Optimize Success in Our Practice
How can we optimize success in building and sustaining our practice? First, there needs to be a dissatisfaction with what is, which fires a longing for change. Curiosity can get us in the door, but deep longing will get us started. We also need support, especially in the beginning. Yes! It’s tough to create real change on our own. We need boosting from others. In my ashram days, we had a saying: “company is stronger than willpower.”
Practicing with others in an informal or class setting is invaluable. In this light it is good to have guides who themselves are committed and strive to live what they teach. We all know the power of being in the presence of a committed teacher when learning anything. His or her experience, love, inspiration, encouragement and occasional prodding, help launch us into a successful practice that clears us of obstructive habits, and purifies us on all levels, to awaken our birthright of joy, free flowing energy, and freedom.
These are yoga practices that engage all three bodies: pranayama or breath practice, to free the restlessness of the physical body and increase the life force; concentration, meditation, and mantra to become aware of, and to purify us of agitating thought; sahaj or spontaneous prana practice, to allow the life-force (prana) to optimize our progress effortlessly; and atma vichara, or self-inquiry, to awaken insight into our causal patterns of false-identity.
How Do We Know We’ve Transformed?
We know we’ve transformed when self-obstructive habits decrease and are being replaced with supportive ones; when that which triggered a negative reaction no longer does; when we experience an increased capacity for love, joy, kindness and compassion that arise not from some externally imposed moral imperative, but because it arises spontaneously as part of our true nature.
Finally, a wonderful transformation expands not only our creativity, but our follow-through on them; it allows us to listen to our deepest callings, and awakens the love and energy needed to offer our unique contribution that blesses the world. My deep wish is that you embark on a regular practice to fully realize the above—and more.
Thomas Amelio intensely studied yogic disciplines and philosophy in India, where he edited Rajarshi Muni’s classic, Yoga–The Ultimate Spiritual Path. He is a founding member of, and has been a senior teacher at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health for over 40 years, and is President Emeritus of the NY Open Center in New York City. His latest CD is Mantra Darshan–Vedic and Tantric invocations for meditative absorption.
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