sparking divinity

Eileen Delehanty Pearkes hikes into the fire zone & fights the urge to quit with tapas, self-discipline & purification, in the 6th of a 10-part series exploring the yamas and niyamas.

images from Eileen Delehanty Pearkes' sketchbook

Four years ago, a large wildfire swept through the forested backcountry of southeastern BC. What began as a lightning strike near Kutetl Creek in the Selkirk Mountains grew into a hot, uncontrollable fire, one of the largest in the province in 2003. Initially, the fire was allowed to burn freely. As it approached human settlement, strenuous efforts to curb its spread began.

I can recall seeing dense plumes of smoke rising immediately behind a nearby mountain ridge, and hearing stories of firefighters constructing an earthen fireguard with heavy machinery. Planes buzzed overhead to drop water and fire retardant. Smoke and ash filled the air. Before it was over, 8000 hectares had been affected.

The early decision not to stamp out the blaze had quite literally backfired, though it had not been made lightly. For decades, all wildfires were completely suppressed, until scientists discovered the important ecological role that fire plays in natural landscapes. Today, wildfires far from human settlement are often left to burn. In the case of Kutetl, accumulated deadwood and other forest refuse built up from many years of total fire suppression, combined with hot weather and high winds, fueled the fire’s intensity until it grew unmanageable.

The Yoga Sutras speak of fire in verse 2.43 when Patanjali discusses the niyama, tapas. The five niyamas form the second limb of the eight-limbed tree of yoga that Patanjali describes in this classic yoga text. The limb that precedes niyama is yama, a collection of five principles guiding the natural, ethical behaviour of a person in relation to others. The niyamas guide behaviour toward the self. Tapas, or as it is sometimes translated – self-discipline and purification – is a central practice on the path of yoga. Fire plays its own role in the evolution of a body, mind and spirit.

Literally, tapas means “to burn.” Metaphorically, the term refers more broadly to any physical practice that assists the body and mind in burning away impurities, either through the creation of physical heat or through the endurance of discomfort or sustenance of effort as a form of self-discipline. Tapas can be the practice of asanas, or the repetition of pranayama (controlled breathing). Fasting and other dietary observances are other forms of tapas.

Many times in my practice of Ashtanga Yoga, I have experienced the physical and mental effects of tapas. The ujjayi breath, an inhale and exhale through a slightly closed throat, restricts the flow of oxygen just enough to compound inner heat. Abstaining from water also raises the body’s temperature. Practising in a warm room or climate adds another element of heat from the outside. Sweat, one of the body’s important cooling fluids, often flows profusely.

While I have experienced these specific forms of tapas for years, I was unprepared for the role self-discipline would play when I stepped off my mat and into my hiking boots to see the Kutetl fire zone for myself. To get there, I would have to hike high into the backcountry, into a trackless and extremely rugged area. While logging roads often give access to higher elevations, once those roads end, few trails are well-marked or even developed at all.

I asked for some guidance from my friend Madeleine, a nineteen-year-old aspiring mountaineer. She agreed to guide me first to the top of the White-water basin, then across the alpine ridge on which Ymir mountain perches, then down into the Kutetl basin. We planned an overnight hike, with our tent pitched somewhere close to the fire zone.

Eileen Delehanty Pearkes practices Ashtanga Yoga and lives in Nelson, BC. She is the author of The Geography of Memory and co-author of The Inner Green. Her third book, The Glass Seed, was released by timeless books in October 2007. Eileen’s exploration of the yamas and niyamas will continue in the next issue, as she interprets satya (or truthfulness).

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life