If you practice yoga and think tapas are just delicious small Spanish snacks then read on.
Tapas is one of the niyamas (observances) as stated by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. It is just one of 10 things we should adhere to alongside our asana practice when traveling the path towards yoga.
The yamas (restraints) and niyamas are the foundation for how we behave towards others as well as how we behave towards ourselves. The yamas and niyamas are the framework which can help us live our yoga off the mat and interact with the world around us. They are crucial for a holistic experience of the practice, and are the way in which we can allow yoga to permeate through our entire life experience. The niyamas include santosha (contentment), shauca (cleanliness), as well as svadhyaya (self study), ishvara pranidhana (surrender to god) and tapas.
Fire in your belly.
Tapas is often translated as discipline but it is so much more than that. According to B.K.S. Iyengar in his book Light on Yoga (1966):
Tapas is derived from the root word ‘tap, meaning to burn, blaze, shine, suffer pain or consume by heat. It therefore means a burning effort under all circumstances to achieve a definite goal in life.
Tapas is the conscious effort to achieve ultimate union with the divine and to burn up all desires that stand in the way of this goal.*
Judith Hansen-Lasater describes tapas as fiery determination. Fire holds a very important place in yoga philosophy. It is seen to burn off all that we don’t need and illuminate reality from maya, or the illusion we have been living. It is why many Swami’s wear orange—to represent the fire of knowledge and truth that has burnt away their previous self.
Fire is seen as the ultimate transformational force. There is no death in yoga, only transformation and change—the process of birth, sustainment, dissolution and then rebirth again. So, through discipline and determination we can stoke up a fire within us that will burn away all we don’t need. This fire can work on both a physical and mental level to burn off impurities.
Pain and Suffering?
Sri Swami Satchidananda’s translation of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Book 2, Sutra 1 states that:
Tapah Svadhyayesvara Pranidhanani Kriya Yogah, or
Accepting pain as help for purification, study of spiritual books and surrender to the Supreme Being constitute yoga in practice.
Here tapas is translated as the pain suffered from fire or heat. Satchidananda describes tapas as ‘accepting pain as part of a process of purification and the removal of impurities through fire.’ Tapas is listed right up front in the portion of the Yoga Sutras on practice, so it must be pretty important—but accepting pain? I don’t like the sound of that….so, what is pain?
From this interpretation, tapas can be seen as determination and perseverance to stay with our practice through perceived pain and suffering. The pain of getting up early in the dark, the suffering of sitting on our mat when it’s cold and we feel frumpy, creaky and ancient, the pain of being nice to that horrible and annoying person, the suffering of telling the truth even though it is difficult and hurts.
The pain and suffering of being honest with ourselves and owning the feelings we are scared to feel and want to blame someone else for. Tapas is the fire to illuminate and burn away all that we don’t need, allowing us to transform and grow. So tapas can be seen as accepting these types of pain as part of a process off breaking free of our habits, addictions and patterns.
There is suffering we want to burn off and push through, and there is pain we absolutely need to listen to. We do not want to push through the pain and suffering of a hamstring attachment injury, sacroiliac joint misalignment, strained knee ligaments, torn or pulled soft tissue of any kind at all.
No one is going to do the practice for us, and we need to practice in order to work through our patterns and habits and find more self-acceptance, realization and awareness. So tapas is important as it is the fire and drive to help us keep going, even when things get tough. When I talked about my struggle with discipline, one of my teachers once reminded me that it all starts with love. Coming to all we do on and off the mat with love seems to make everything easier.
Tapas in the physical body can be generated by breathing practices such as khapalabati (breath of fire or ‘shining skull’ breath) and bastrika (bellows breath). Or maybe try doing a few more rounds of surya namaskar than you might usually, or staying in a pose a bit longer than your mind wants you to—stay with it and see what happens.
Tapas of the mind can be helped by choosing a time to meditate—doesn’t matter for how long—and sticking to it every day for a month, no matter what. Or maybe by giving up something for 30 days that you really love—in an addicted, freak-out-if-you-can’t-have-it kind of way (this month I’m doing croissants). Or by committing to do something you really don’t like with love and dedication every day for a month.
Tapas is the acceptance of pain as a force of transformation, but we must remember to differentiate between the physical pain that is an alarm bell from the body, and the pain and suffering we feel when breaking free from our habits, addictions and attachments to senses.
* p.18, ‘Light on Yoga’, 2001 edition.
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Assistant Editor: Tifany Lee / Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photos: Hermione Armitage