Tapas, or self-discipline, is one of five niyamas in the 8 limbs of yoga. In addition to self-discipline, tapas in yoga also refers to an internal fire, or purifying through heat. Whether the literal heat of a sweaty yoga class, or the internal fire of passion and courage, tapas represents the discipline needed to overcome obstacles in our path to growth. This introduction to the third niyama will help you learn how to stoke your internal fire in order to enhance your yoga practice and everyday life.
What is Tapas in Yoga?
The word tapas in yoga is derived from the root Sanskrit verb “tap” which means “to burn”, and is often associated with “fiery discipline” or “passion”. It has also been referred to in English as “heat”, “spiritual austerities”, or “internal fire”. To understand the principle of tapas in yoga, two popular interpretations are worth exploring:
- Self-Discipline: Tapas cultivates the discipline and commitment we need to improve any area of our life as well as release patterns that no longer serve us. It teaches us to find the motivation to accomplish things and stick with them even when they become challenging. One important distinction to make when it comes to tapas, though, is that discipline does not equate to difficulty. Tapas is more about consistency in moving forward rather than pushing to extreme limits. While it certainly takes discipline to complete a rigorous ashtanga yoga class each day, sometimes discipline is recognizing that the body needs a break with a restorative class.
- Austerity: Yoga Chicago notes that in practicing the austerity of tapas, “we make a conscious choice to withstand some deprivation without complaint, attachment or aversion. We commit to temperance, a method of developing moderation.” Through accepting sacrifice, we can learn to get comfortable with discomfort in our personal growth journey, and develop the determination needed to face and overcome great challenges.
Each of these interpretations overlap with each other and help us achieve the ultimate goal of tapas: burning away physical, mental, and emotional “impurities” that may stand in our way of achieving knowledge of our true self.
In addition to being an individual practice, tapas is included with two other niyamas, svadhyaya (self-study) and ishvara pranidhana (surrender or devotion), in Patanjali’s threefold practice of kriya yoga, or the yoga of purification and action. Patanjali believed that the practices of body discipline, mental control, and meditation within these three niyamas would purify the body, mind, and spirit. This purification would remove obstacles, allowing the yogi to experience clear perception.
Tapas in Practice
With many layers of meaning in the practice of tapas, there are a number of ways in which it can appear in yoga and daily life. Some days, tapas in yoga may involve commiting to a physically demanding practice, while on other days it may mean finding the self-discipline to simply make it to the mat. From something as simple as going to bed on time or refraining from alcohol or unhealthy foods, tapas helps position us where we need to be in order to continue moving forward. Here are several other ways that tapas can be observed in your yoga practice and life:
- Challenge yourself. While tapas does not require us to always push past our limits, there are times when discipline means attempting poses that we usually avoid or sitting in meditation for an extended period of time. By training ourselves to confront things we find challenging, we build confidence and perseverance.
- Adapt to change. Another layer of meaning in the principle of tapas is the ability to withstand the heat of friction. This friction can appear in the form of discomfort that comes with change. Whether it’s a new job, a move, or a new or ending relationship, change can leave us feeling disconnected and anxious. Engaging in consistent practice of things like yoga, meditation, journaling, or spending time in nature can help you process your responses to life changes.
- Strengthen your core. The core is the location of the solar plexus chakra, which, like tapas, governs our sense of self-confidence, inner strength, willpower, and self-discipline. Unsurprisingly, fire is the element of this chakra and helps builds heat throughout the body. Strengthening your core taps into this energy of the solar plexus chakra, as well as the elements of tapas.
- Take small steps. Because tapas is about the discipline of consistency, taking simple and small steps is a great way to stoke your internal fire and create change. Rather than trying to embark on hour-long yoga sessions every day, for example, you can start with a simple and doable two-minute practice. When you can find consistency with that over a long period of time, then you can try five minutes, ten minutes, and so on. Each small step provides the discipline needed to create a bigger change in your habits.
- Embrace simplicity. Looking at the way we utilize our space can help us consider the idea of austerity in tapas. Eliminating clutter and letting go of things that no longer serve us helps rid ourselves of excess and develop a less material approach to life so that we create space for spiritual development. Even examining how we overcommit ourselves to things that do not serve us reflects the principle of tapas.
Now that you have thought about how to practice tapas, check out how to practice saucha both on and off the yoga mat and why santosha is so important in yoga and everyday life to go deeper with the niyamas.