Tapas is an important part of a yogi’s lifestyle and practice. When I first learned about Tapas, I became very committed to several such practices. I kept a Tapas journal, and tracked my daily commitment. With time, many simple practices, like drinking two full glasses of water before breakfast in the morning, became part of my lifestyle. I do not need to track these practices anymore as I used to. I do them naturally like brushing teeth. However, from time to time, I still set up a Tapas practice that challenges me.
A couple of years ago, I read a book about a man called the Iceman, a Dutch fellow, famous for controlling his body temperature at will. Apparently, he has been monitored by scientists in ice-cold water tanks, where he manages not only to maintain his normal body temperature but increase it after 15-20 minutes of being submerged. He has also run a marathon above the Arctic Circle wearing only shorts. And similarly, he hiked Mount Everest.
What piqued my interest was his control of the body through his will. His story reminded me of the Himalayan yogis and Tibetan monks living in cold harsh conditions at high altitudes. Many of them do not wear much clothing. There are well-documented cases of monks and yogis controlling their body temperature at will by the use of certain breathing and visualization techniques. The tales of Tibetan monks were common – sitting naked in the snow on windy mountains with wet sheets on their shoulders, and drying those wet sheets with their body heat, steam rising off their bodies.
There are such techniques in yoga, collectively known as the Yoga of Inner Fire. These techniques help one drive internal body heat to the extremities and remain comfortable in sub-zero conditions.
The book inspired me. I knew the techniques and practiced them occasionally but never long enough to really feel their lasting effect, or test them in a really cold environment. Living in New England at the time, I decided that, starting in November, I would go outside when the temperature was under 40 degrees Fahrenheit, rain or shine or snow or blustery wind, and sit on my towel for thirty minutes practicing the Yoga of Inner Fire.
I decided to treat the whole practice as Tapas, track it and stick to it all winter long. I would only wear my shorts.
It turned out to be a cold winter that year. I sat in sleeting rain, snow blizzards also known as Nor’easters, and negative windchill temperatures.
The initial shock of the cold on the skin was the worst of it. Stepping out, getting to my spot outside, and getting comfortable in a seated position took the most determination. Once I was seated, I focused on my internal warmth. The vital organs always maintain the same temperature. I would relax my muscles, and concentrate on driving that internal warmth out to my skin.
My main techniques were Kapalabhati (skull-shining, or fire breath), Uddhyana Bandha (stomach energy lock), Agnisar Dhauti (fire cleansing of the stomach), Kumbhakas (breath retention), and Bhavana (visualization of energy flow). The more I practiced, the easier it became, and the shorter it took to get really warm. After a couple of weeks of practice, it would take me just about a minute to feel very comfortable outside. My muscles would relax. Goose bumps disappeared. I would feel a pleasant tingling sensation of warmth pulsing through the blood vessels and the skin. It felt electric.
I was warm and comfortable enough to stand up and walk around the yard. My neighbors probably thought I was insane, but it felt exhilarating and energizing. The sense of warmth and electricity remained for the next couple of hours. It actually felt strange to have to wear clothing once back inside. When the warm weather returned in the spring, I switched to taking cold showers, and swimming at Walden Pond.