In April, I was watching a young college student butcher Beethoven in a master class with Russian pianist Vladimir Feltsman. I know it may sound harsh to say that, but I was sitting in the audience fuming that her teacher would not only to give her a piece she wasn’t ready to play but to offer her up as a candidate to play for Feltsman. She had no idea what she was doing – it was kind of hard to watch.
For about fifteen minutes, he worked patiently with her. He told her to stop moving her shoulders and other unnecessary movements (“less physical, more mental, yes?”). She pounded the piano at a fortissimo and he stopped her, “Why you touch piano like this,” he poked her shoulder, “would you touch a person like this? You touch person like this, they don’t like you and you hurt them. You touch piano like this, it doesn’t like you and you disrespect it.” Her tempos were inconsistent, she was playing wrong notes, and he had to tell her things like, “that’s not a half note, it’s a whole note.” He made her slow down messy passages and clapped behind her to keep time. He asked her if she had a metronome (“yes”) and if she practiced with one (shrug).
Finally, he stopped her and said, “Why do you try to fly when you can’t walk? First, learn how to walk, then learn how to run, and maybe someday you will learn how to fly.” He told her to find simpler pieces, practice scales, and work up to the Beethoven.
I heard the spirit of my first horn teacher telling me, “Fundamentals, young lady. Fun-da-mentals.” I heard a chorus of teachers who taught me how to practice. If I played a sloppy passage, break it down – what scale is this? arpeggio? Yes. Now play those and then play the passage. Take it to half speed and gradually bring it up to tempo. Change the rhythm, learn how it works. Fundamentals.
I heard my yoga teachers telling me not to recklessly kick up into headstand, but to engage bandhas and lift instead. I heard them telling me to drop to child’s pose if I’ve lost my breath.
The girl lacked a disciplined practice. She runs risk of injury from the way she moves her shoulders, elbows, and wrists. She will only get so far in playing the piece because she does not take time on the fundamentals. There is some flashy appearance of playing, but it lacks a sophisticated understanding the building blocks of the piece. All these things, summed up by lack of discipline in practice, could keep her from building a beautiful relationship with a piece of music, to get inside, make friends with it, and share its beautiful gifts with others.
Ever had that kind of practice throw its mat down next to you in class? Of course you have.
Ever had that kind of practice yourself? Me – absolutely.
Like when I thought I had successfully gotten to a point where I could incorporate chaturanga to upward facing dog through a whole class. I was looking up instead of down at the ground, lifting my heart from my toes to the top of my head. It was like when I got assigned my first Mozart concert and could play with the big kids. Then I wondered why my shoulder was hurting, even after correcting an ergonomic issue at work. Looking back, it seems so silly – like any one pose is better than another. I was so excited about being able to do a more advanced version of a pose, I got more interested in the idea of putting this in my repertoire than making sure I had built enough strength to do it correctly throughout the whole class. I was butchering Beethoven and needed to practice my scales. I caught myself. I dialed it back, built the strength and self-awareness to safely add the pose to my flow. Besides, I love low cobra. Just like in music, building a discipline is the core of a lifelong relationship with yoga.
So I’m thinking about tapas a lot this week. I just found out this week that I got accepted to a 200-hour teacher training that will start in September. I’m also finishing up assisting training and hope to be assisting over the summer before teacher training. I’m taking steps to deepen this practice. It’s filled a place in my life that has been empty since I stopped playing music. I am so grateful to the amazing teachers I had during my classical music journey – the lessons are 100% transferable.
I love Rolf Gates’ discussion of tapas in his book Meditations from the Mat. It takes place over a couple days, but here is a quote from Day 77:
Tapas is the spirit of inquiry; it is abut having the heart of an explorer. It is the willingness to work hard in practice, the desire to know oneself, the will to be honest. This desire will give us consistency. We will have good days and bad days, days when the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, and days when the opposite is the case. Years of consistent practice are not built on rigid self-discipline; they are built on the desire to know more.
I also really like Judith Lasater’s definition from this article on Yoga Journal’s website:
Tapas is one of the most powerful concepts in the Yoga Sutra. The word “tapas” comes from the Sanskrit verb “tap” which means “to burn.” The traditional interpretation of tapas is “fiery discipline,” the fiercely focused, constant, intense commitment necessary to burn off the impediments that keep us from being in the true state of yoga (union with the universe).
Unfortunately, many people mistakenly equate discipline in yoga practice with difficulty. They see another student striving to perfect the most difficult poses and assume she must be more disciplined and therefore more spiritually advanced.
But difficulty does not in itself make a practice transformational. It’s true that good things are sometimes difficult, but not all difficult things are automatically good. In fact, difficulty can create its own impediments. The ego is drawn to battle with difficulty: Mastering a challenging yoga pose, for example, can bring pride and an egoistic attachment to being an “advanced” yoga student.
A better way to understand tapas is to think of it as consistency in striving toward your goals: getting on the yoga mat every day, sitting on the meditation cushion every day—or forgiving your mate or your child for the 10,000th time. If you think of tapas in this vein, it becomes a more subtle but more constant practice, a practice concerned with the quality of life and relationships rather than focused on whether you can grit your teeth through another few seconds in a difficult asana.
Tapas. The money for this training is no small thing to our household budget, so I want to stay as clear an focused as a can on this path – not take a moment for granted. I’m incredibly grateful to be here and have the support of my husband who has patiently seen me unsuccessfully search for this path on different instruments, art supplies, and a sewing machine. I couldn’t do it without him. Yay!
All this talk of tapas is making me hungry…and where’s my sangria?
P.S. I have another story from the Feltsman master class…I’ll post it one of these days.