Tapas is one of the 5 niyamas described in the yoga sutras. Tapas can be translated as “fire” or “burning”, and it refers to the disciplined use of our energy. The use of the word “discipline” often carries a negative connotation of self-restraint, but it can also be interpreted as “burning enthusiasm”. There are a lot of other translations and descriptions for the term “tapas”, such as self-discipline, austerity, motive and devotion. All of these translations offer a slightly different angle on a common topic: how to pass by short-term distractions and desires, so that we can remain focused on our higher goals. This dedicated commitment called “tapas” is in the heart of yoga. In Yoga practice, it is difficult to make progress without discipline. We need some kind of desire to propel us towards transformation and progress in our lives. When we are able to create an attitude of burning enthusiasm, the strength of our beliefs creates a force that drives us forward.
The root of the word “tapas” means “burning”, and the term carries the transformative quality of fire. Just like fire transforms whatever it touches, tapas is the method of personal transformation. During the practice of tapas, the yoga practitioners find their own inner flame, the burning motivation that keeps them focused on their goals and helps them avoid any obstacles blocking their way. Sensual temptations, laziness, negative thoughts, weakness and physical difficulties, selfish disposition, they all gradually weaken. Pure and disciplined focus limits the force of the senses to distract us and in that way, tapas “perfects the body and the senses, and purifies it” Yoga Sutras. II.43
The term “tapas” is often used to refer to intense spiritual practices. But, even a simple and regular meditation practice or asana can be a form of tapas. We train the mind to be consistent with a warrior’s values, and to keep honoring the resolution to practice, no matter what.
We all know that even dull or less pleasant tasks can be transformed, if we perform them with strength and impulse. The principle of tapas is a way of directing our energy. Like a focused beam of light that penetrates darkness, tapas keeps us on our path, so that we do not waste our energy on superficial or insignificant things.
We do not all possess the same tapas quality. Some must work harder towards that direction, and these are the moments when attention and lots of humor is needed. Then, our actions are dictated from a place of ourselves that knows what is good for us and is reinforced by our ability to laugh in the face of our obsessions, our lethargic mood or our addictions.
In addition, tapas describes our ability to endure difficulties without becoming a victim, knowing that many times we must fight in order to evolve and to learn, and so, part of this practice is to welcome even the painful circumstances.
Another facet of the principle of tapas is austerity. In modern culture, we often associate austerity with strictness and deprivation. Nevertheless, in the philosophy of yoga, austerity is a chance to liberate ourselves from distractions. But austerity and self-discipline can be a double-edged sword. People can often go to extremes to gain recognition and attention. It is important to pick a practice that we will be able to follow through, and to decide how much time we will dedicate to it, and in that way, begin and keep going, without deviating from our decision. We need to set a logical and realistic goal, pick a regular practice that will present a challenge, while being feasible at the same, so that we do not expose ourselves to agony and disappointment. When we become oriented towards a long-term goal, it is certain that at some point difficulties will arise. But, when we find that we have the strength and the courage to commit, it is wonderful, and even more than the final goal of transformation, the discovery of our inner power is our greatest reward.
Commitment and regularity in daily practice is a great opportunity to find inner strength. Discipline does not always have to be something hard. When we do not live according to that disciplined awareness, the tactic of evasion creates a vicious cycle of even more misery for ourselves. This evasion may bring some temporary relief, but it also brings about a feeling of lack of fulfilment, because we know that we are not being true to ourselves and to our potential. Discipline is to have enough respect for our own self, so that we can make choices that really support us on our way to personal prosperity, and that will offer us the opportunities to expand and evolve. Quite differently than being a punishment, the tapas principle allows us to direct our energy towards a more well-rounded life, full of meaning, excitement and pleasure.
By Effie Psiachoulia
For the Neda Yoga Shala Team.