Over the past several weeks I’ve been writing about the yamas and niyamas, or restraints and observances that are an essential part of the eight-limbed path of yoga. This week brings us to a discussion of tapas, the third of the niyamas.
The Sanskrit word tapas translates as “heat” or “fire.” The root “tap” means “to burn, blaze, shine, consume by heat or suffer pain.” As a niyama, tapas means austerity, endurance, self-discipline, effort, asceticism and the control of or abandonment of desire. It involves willpower and the exertion of ”burning effort” in our practice.
Now, you might read this and say, “Suffer pain? Asceticism? Austerity? No thank you. I’m outta here.”
But, if you’re still with me, let’s explore this a little further.
In today’s culture, we generally associate the term “austerity” with severity and deprivation. However, within the philosophy of yoga, austerity is an opportunity to free ourselves from distraction. And it’s often true that when we discipline ourselves toward a long-term goal, we may experience difficulties and challenges as we confront the limits of our own commitment and self-control. Yet, with the support of our teachers and a community of fellow practitioners, our personal fire becomes stronger, and we find great rewards from the inner strength that we cultivate through our practice.
Last fall I went to a yoga festival in California where I happened to notice a young man wearing a t-shirt that said “life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” That has become somewhat of a motto for me these days. When I notice myself avoiding anything uncomfortable, when I see that I’m clinging to what’s easy, familiar and safe, when I’m unwilling to step into the fire of a challenging practice or situation, I remind myself that growth is often uncomfortable. Being fully and deeply alive means stepping into the fire with courage and faith.
Going beyond our comfort zone does not mean that we need to create unnecessary pain or suffering for ourselves. It’s not about self-flagellation. The underlying operative principle here is Love. And we must remember that the practice of ahimsa (non-violence) applies to all activities that we undertake.
In addition to self-discipline, the niyama of tapas also implies purification. Just as fire transforms all that it touches, tapas is a method of personal transformation. In the practice of tapas, we find our own inner flame – the fiery motivation that keeps us focused on our goals and helps us to incinerate any obstacles blocking our path. Sensory temptations, laziness, negative thoughts, weakness and blockage in the body, and self- centeredness are gradually overcome by the observance of tapas. Clear and disciplined focus limits the power of the senses to distract us, and in this way, tapas perfects the body and mind, and clears away impurities.
Tapas cleanses the inner debris existing in the physical body, the subtle/energetic body, and the mind in many ways-- through asanas, pranayama, a healthy diet, and meditation practices. In this way, tapas relates to the first niyama, saucha (purity/cleanliness). Brahmacharya, the moderation of one’s vital energy, is also a natural extension of tapas. Its practice helps keep the fire of the heart bright and pure.
The way tapas manifests is different for each individual. Each of us is called to examine what it will look like for us, and to what depths we are willing to take our sadhana (spiritual practice). There is no right or wrong here--only an invitation to examine our goals and our level of commitment. We can also ask ourselves what our "burning desires" are in our lives. What calls us forward with passion?
I must mention here that many of us struggle with addictive behaviors that seem to overpower our self-discipline or willpower. This can be very discouraging and demoralizing. Seeking support from a spiritual teacher, recovery support group, or therapist can be an essential life-line, helping us recommit to our spiritual practice, one day at a time.
Here are some inquiries for exploring tapas in your life, whether or not you engage in formal yoga practice on a mat:
--What am I passionate about? In what ways do I discipline myself to engage in that endeavor or work toward those goals? How do I create focus in my life so that I can nurture and support that passion?
--In what areas of my life do I exhibit self-control, discipline and focus? What have been the benefits?
--Are there areas of my life where I have been undisciplined? What have been the consequences of this lack of focus?
--Do I have an addiction that I have not been able to control with willpower alone? How has that affected my spiritual practice? What resources are available to me for support, and am I willing to use them?
--What calls to me with a burning desire, and why? How can the practice of tapas move me forward toward manifesting that vision?
Living tapas, you are like a burning arrow. swift and direct in reaching your goals. With single-pointed focus, you burn away everything in the way of your achievement. Consumed by the fire within, you are disciplined in overcoming destructive desires. You are strong enough to combat negative forces and strive past all obstacles in your path to victory. ~Joanna Mosca, YogaLife: 10 Steps to Freedom