By Ramona M. Wis
I have to admit, I am feeling the heat.
Virtual rehearsal planning. Technology. Pandemic updates. Constant communication. Summer heat.
Conductors are tough folks—we know what it’s like to feel the heat and find ways to get through it. Though “no pain, no gain” is usually considered an athlete’s mantra, musicians live this, as well. Usually the gain is an end goal—an accomplishment of some sort, like an award or a concert well performed. But there is a deeper way to understand the purpose—and the result—of “heat” in our lives. This is the principle of tapas.
Tapas (here, not referring to the delicious Spanish small plates) is derived from the Sanskrit root “tap,” meaning “heat” (or blaze, burn, or shine). In its historical context, tapas means personal discipline for the purpose of purification. One of the niyamas, the inner observances from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, tapas is often likened to the purification of gold. When applied to our lives, we can view the burning off of impurities as the practice of using our time and effort in a focused way, getting to the heart of our work and letting the rest burn off to unveil what is the most valuable and precious.
Tapas can be understood in its strict sense as a practice of austerity, as when we deny ourselves a particular food or give up a behavior in order to gain greater physical health or spiritual awareness. The larger understanding of tapas is our discipline in making choices which result in a cleaner, leaner mode of action, clearing or freeing us because decisions always involve a “cutting off” of options. Going through the heat ultimately brings us to a better version of ourselves on the other side; we experience in our thinking and practice a kind of purification, which the dictionary defines as “refinement” or “distillation.” This is the defining construct of tapas.
On the yoga mat, tapas may mean working on a more challenging pose or staying with it longer to build strength or endurance. This translates off the mat in much the same way—staying with the planning of virtual rehearsal and concert experiences or employing new technologies and strategies that can build our intellectual strength and missional endurance. We are going to need our passion and will, the inner heat we have always depended on, in order to emerge from this season with a refined level of clarity for our new and future choral reality.
Type A personalities may seem better built for tapas but if not careful, can find themselves moving ahead with force instead of wisdom, with speed and grandeur instead of discernment and elegant simplicity of action. This may result in a lot of ineffective and hard-to-manage strategic baggage, while our more disciplined colleague finds a way that is effective and exactly what is needed, and no more.
Tapas always involves a releasing of the ego.
If we exert effort in any area of life in order to look good, be famous, one-up the next person, or have something to post on social, then the purification—the real transformation which occurs within us—never happens. But if our focus is on the singers and programs we are given to lead, we might even, on our best days, begin to welcome the heat because we know it will mean we worked tirelessly for their greater good and we can trust that who we are at the end of it all will be a more refined version of ourselves and the unique gifts we are designed to bring to our corner of the world.
In the Robert Frost poem, “A Servant to Servants,” the main character realizes, “ . . . [T]he best way out is always through.” In our most difficult moments, we want “out” of this surreal time . . . but if we reframe all we are experiencing as a narrative we want very much to be a part of, and even lead through when we look back on it, we know down deep we just don’t want to miss this opportunity.
“The whole science of character building may be regarded as a practice of tapas,” wrote one of the world’s foremost yoga teachers, B.K.S. Iyengar, in Light on Yoga. What will be our commitment to tapas as we prepare for and experience this fall season? And how will we emerge when we stand on the other side of this era?
Purified in spirit, strategy, and strength is my hope for us all.
Dr. Ramona Wis is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and the author of The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium. Dr. Wis is a 500-hour CYT (Certified Yoga Teacher) with training in yoga history, philosophy, meditation, energetics, pranayama (breathwork), anatomy, Sanskrit, and the teaching, sequencing, and adaptations of asana (posture-based) practice.
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