When I was studying to become a yoga teacher, I had difficulty understanding Tapas. Defined as heat or discipline in the Niyamas, it wasn’t clear to me how it was applied. As my practice and knowledge deepened, I came to understand that Tapas is essential, not only for the practice of yoga, but also for moving through life.
Yoganand Michael Carroll writes that, “Before there was yoga, there was something called Tapas.” Tapas was the fire at the center of a sacrificial ritual, then came to be defined as austerities and discipline. In his book, The Inner Tradition of Yoga, Michael Stone writes that, “The work of Tapas, which is the essence of yoga, is the cultivation of the skills that allows us to be present in the here and now no matter what occurs…”
We know Tapas as a restraint included in the Niyamas. Restraint creates friction and churning. By purposely creating challenge, as life continually offers challenge, the practice of Tapas was meant to develop the power of discipline and patience. It is this discipline and drive that supports our daily practice. No matter what the day brings, we know that the essence of yoga is to practice in order to transform. We can acknowledge habitual patterns (think how often we check our devices) and choose to shift those patterns.
Through Tapas, we develop focused attention. We find balance between aversion and attachment moving steadily toward the middle path. We find the commitment required for self-betterment, perseverance to move through difficulty and the inner fire to stay energized even as our strength is challenged. Consider a yoga practice where you are holding a posture and the mind is saying “enough.” You’re aware that remaining steady will bring benefits so you persevere. That is Tapas.
The fire of tapas becomes courage, self-discipline, and staying power. In yoga, we know that coming to the mat is essential because that inner burn creates resilience on multiple levels. We practice with the faith that the inner fire transforms our character as the Yamas and Niyamas are intended to do. Again, this could translate to transforming cravings and tendencies into optimal behavior versus staying stuck in a groove.
In daily life, we choose the path of friction when we decide to better ourselves by applying practices that change habitual patterns (fitness, eating, education, relationships, etc.). Certain tapas were intended to bring enlightenment, longevity, and prosperity. Consider the success of conquering a bad habit, maintaining an exercise routine, learning a new skill, managing relationships. Staying with it is Tapas.
Beyond the earthly effect, Yoganand Michael Carroll writes, Tapas was “valuable on the spiritual level.” “Tapas was transformation.” With the churn of disciplined practice, habitual habits that block access to Spirit are recognized. We come to understand what gets in the way. Through Tapas, we forge a path toward enlightenment. (Note, the Tapas referred to here are Divine Tapas and are not intended to be harmful as a practice of penance might be.)
Studying the Hatha Yoga Pradipika will reveal that the practices we are familiar with: Asana, Pranayama, Mudra and Meditation can be informed through the lens of the past. As we come to understand the types of practices, the reasons for practices and how they changed over time, our own practices might deepen. Tapas is at the essence. It is not that we have to be celibate or practice difficult disciplines, but we can connect the dots to the lineages of yoga.
In those times when we don’t know how to get through the next minute of what seems unknown and overwhelming to us, can we hold on until we are somehow blessed by our struggle?
Deborah Adele – The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice
As you move forward in your study of yoga, consider deepening your understanding of Tapas. You might start with an essay by Yoganand Michael Carroll available here: https://pranakriya.com/tapas-the-fire-in-your-practice/