What is Tapas?
What is Tapas?
This post is the eighth in a series of articles exploring the yamas and niyamas, the moral principles and qualities that form part of the philosophy of a “yogic” lifestyle. Stay tuned to our blog to continue to learn about each of the 10 concepts and how to integrate them into your yoga practice and daily life.
Yamas are ethical practices that help us create a pure, resilient, healthy lifestyle. The yamas include Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha. If you’re just starting this series now, you can find more information on each of the yamas in their respective posts.
We’re now into the niyamas, and you can find an introduction to the niyamas as a whole in the post on Saucha, or cleanliness. The second niyama was Santosha, and now we are onto the third, Tapas. Tapas comes from the Sanskrit word “tap,” which means “to burn”; the fire of Tapas is generally thought of as “austerity” or “discipline.” You can also think of Tapas as perseverance or sustained effort towards a specified goal or purpose.
The easy path or the hard one?
Tapas is relatively easy to define but challenging to put into practice in our daily lives. It’s easy to be complacent and do what we always do – it’s easy to go for that beer after work instead of going to the gym; it’s easy to watch tv instead of working on your passion project; and it’s easy to go for that donut even though you want to eat healthier.
But when you start to challenge yourself to be more disciplined, heat is generated by the friction of going against your normal habits. That heat is Tapas, and it is about burning away physical, mental, and spiritual patterns that no longer serve you.
Fire is transformative; it changes one material into something else entirely. The discipline of Tapas is meant to create change, and that change can be uncomfortable. Part of Tapas is allowing yourself to feel discomfort as you stretch out of your comfort zone.
Let’s look at an example to make Tapas more clear. Let’s say that you’re considering applying for a promotion, and your new role would require regular public speaking. The trouble is, you’re terrified of public speaking. The easy thing to do would be to wait for another position to come along that you’re more comfortable in. With Tapas, you would work to push yourself out of your comfort zone – attend Toastmasters training, practice your public speaking and interview skills, and apply for that job. The discipline is in showing up and practicing on a regular basis, even when it would be much easier to do nothing.
As you might have guessed, observing Tapas is not necessarily going to be fun – the hardest part of change is in building new habits. But it’s the most challenging changes that will make the most impact on your everyday life.
Taking it too far
It’s very easy to take Tapas too far: it’s important not to conflate “discipline” with “difficulty.” The difficult path is not always the correct one, and we’ll explore that idea more in the yoga practice section of this post.
The way to maintain a balance when you practice Tapas is to make sure you continue to practice the yamas and niyamas that come before Tapas: Ahimsa, or non-harming, helps you to prevent Tapas from becoming self-abuse. Santosha, or contentment, helps you to be content in the moment and not beat yourself up. Aparigraha, or non-attachment, helps you to separate your energy and your self-worth from the outcomes of your disciplined practice.
Tapas in your yoga practice
Tapas is not just about heating, core-focused yoga practice; Tapas is about maintaining the discipline of a regular practice, whatever that looks like for you. Also part of Tapas is the discipline of taking care of yourself so that your practice is sustainable, and sometimes that means practicing slowly or not at all.
Again, discipline should not be mixed up with difficulty; discipline is not always about pushing to your edge. Sometimes, it’s about going against what you find natural and easy in order to find balance. For example, if a hot Vinyasa class is your usual M.O., you may find some value in a slow Restorative class. Going against the grain is what starts to stimulate the fire of Tapas; then that fire helps you to build positive and healthy habits.
When it comes to your physical practice, it’s also important to continue practicing the previous yamas and niyamas, especially Aparigrapha, or non-attachment. Tapas can easily lead to obsessive practice and an attachment to being seen as an “advanced” student; practicing Aparigraha helps keep you unattached to that perception and can help with keeping your practice balanced and progressing in a healthy and sustainable way.
The best things in life are often the most challenging to get and maintain; practicing Tapas helps you progress towards the life that you want for yourself. When you’re first building new habits, it’s important to start with short practices and easy things like making your bed every day, one minute of meditation every morning, or a glass of water first thing. Just like muscles get stronger through resistance, your mind will find it easier to get past resistance the more you practice.