Tapas, anyone?

By Jana Hill
Yoga Instructor

Okay, now you’re expecting a recipe — and I’ll admit when I hear the word it kind of makes me hungry. Mmmmm — tapas. It also makes me want to travel to Spain, because I saw an Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown episode on tapas, and bar-hopping. (I’d like to doll this up, but I’ve watched enough of his shows that I think he’d be most comfortable with the term “bar hopping.”) The whole things sounded quite elegant — he bought a nice glass of wine everywhere he went, and was billed for the wine but the food was free. Carefully prepared, whole-food appetizers were free. Wow, right? For those of us used to the best, cleanest whole-food options at three-times the price, or more — well, that looked pretty amazing. Possibly worth a plane ticket. But I will rant and rave about the cost of a clean diet later on.

Anyway — where was I? Big tangent there. Um, tapas, yoga-style. In yoga, tapas is the practice of burning off impurities. Generally, it is an attempt to cleanse the body and mind.

In my classes, we practiced tapas by changing small things. We moved our mats and played completely different music. We also used a wall in one class, because I had never taught a class using the wall. And, that’s it. It sounds oddly simple, but like many yoga practices, it’s simplicity is the point.

As the New Year rolls out, and month-two of 2016 rolls in, most people are looking at their resolutions and finding out that brain-chemistry and body-memory are powerful forces. We code our brains. Most of the time, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. But as we move, breathe, live life, we tell the brain “I do this thing, this way.” It’s body memory, muscle memory, and brain-coding all combined, preparing to quickly and easily recreate the day that happened before — it’s a snap-to-it action that favors stasis.

Our bodies like stasis.

Your body remembers your experiences, your movements, and your tendencies. The mind-body connection is coded to protect you, and to make your day easier by remembering what to do and when. One person’s body says, “this is safe,” while another person’s body says, “I am in serious danger.”

Consider that mind-body connection in a practical way. When you’re in a Child’s Pose in yoga, many people find it comforting — it’s the fetal position. You’re mimicking that place and time when you were enveloped and safe, where it was quiet and controlled, and you had a general idea that everything would stay that way. Some trauma victims may end up feeling the opposite: the fetal position may be one they curled into to protect themselves, during an attack. Both people are drawing on body-memory — the brain’s understanding of what to do, when the body is in “this shape” or “this environment.”

State-dependent memory is further proof of the mind-body connection — if you learn something while standing in a pool or smelling the scent of vanilla, that same information will be easier to recall if you are in the pool, or smelling the vanilla.

Tapas practice takes advantage of that mind-body coding, by changing the norm, and disrupting that sense of comfort and familiarity.

In yoga, the goal is to be “present” with that experience, and notice what happens in you. In your body. In your mind. In your breathing. Just move and watch, watch and move. Yoga is like that. You practice, move, breath, then you watch what unfolds, in you. In your body and mind.

I didn’t ask my students what happened, because if they want to tell me, they will.

In me, the tapas practice allowed me to notice things I did not see before — I experienced a sense of audiovisual presence that was more objective, more detailed. When you undo your norm, you smooth out your rut, and the brain stops telling the story before it happens. You see things more clearly and accurately. A different act disrupts what the brain expects.

The sky and mountains were beautiful today. They don’t move. I could notice them daily. Often, I don’t.

Try it. Take a different route, on the way home. If you usually start your day with oatmeal, try something else. Anything, really. If you end your day with red wine, drink cran-raspberry juice from that same wine glass, and pay attention to what happens.

If you usually growl at the first person you see at work, soften your tone and see how that changes the day. If you usually cower at the first growling person you see at work, stare that person straight in the eye, and check out what that does. Find your opposite act, and try it on for size.

Try a mindful change. Then another. Then another. And just watch what happens.