“Inner ardour or determination perfects the body and senses, and destroys impurities.”
Yoga Sutras, II.43
Translation by Kofi Busia
Tapas is one of the five niyamas, or observances, described in the Yoga Sutras. While some of the niyamas are consistently translated into only one or two English terms, there are many accepted translations of tapas. Some of them are: self-discipline, austerity, burning desire, motivation, and dedication. All of these translations put a slightly different angle on a single theme: the overcoming of short term distractions and desires, in order to stay focused on one’s highest goals. This dedicated focus called tapas is at the heart of yoga.
From the root “to burn,” the word tapas carries with it the transformational essence of fire. Just as fire transforms all that it touches, tapas is a method of personal transformation. In the practice of tapas, a yogi finds his own inner flame – the fiery motivation that keeps him focused on his goals and helps him to incinerate the obstacles along his path. Sensory temptations, laziness, negative thoughts, weakness and blockage in the body, and selfish orientation are gradually weakened and corroded. Clear and disciplined focus limits the power of the senses to distract us, and in this way, tapas “perfects the body and senses, and destroys impurities.”
In today’s culture, we generally associate the term “austerity” with severity and depravation. However, within the philosophy of yoga, austerity is an opportunity to free ourselves from distraction. When we discipline ourselves toward a long-term goal, difficulty does definitely arise – because it is frustrating and challenging to confront the limits of our own commitment and self-control. However, when we find that we have the strength and courage to commit, it is an unbelievable. Even more than the end goal of transformation, the discovery of our inner strength is our biggest reward. And fortunately, this effect grows on itself; the more often we act in accordance with our convictions, the more we gain self-possession and self-direction.
Austerity and self-discipline can act as two-edged swords, however. Often, people can be tempted toward extremes of behavior in order to gain recognition and notice. The Bhagavad Gita specifically warns against practicing austerities “with hypocrisy and egotism, impelled by lust, and attachment,” stating that this is tortuous for the body, and destroys any divine presence in the body. It also states that the results of such ego-driven pursuits are “unsteady and impermanent.”(Bhagavad Gita, Chapter XVII) Consider the example of two different people who have decided to limit their diets. Person One has changed their diet because of an ego-driven desire to be skinnier, “better,” more attractive, and more desirable. Person Two has decided to change their diets in order to have a healthier and happier body, so that they can focus on their highest goals with less distraction from illness and fatigue. This is a truly tapasic approach.
One way to foster tapas is to spend some time thinking about what you really want. The goals you choose can be both short term and long term. What sort of person would you most like to be? What are the character traits that you would most like to personify? When you are confronting a dilemma or choice, ask yourself which outcomes will take you closer toward being the sort of person you are trying to become, and which outcomes take you farther from that goal. When you commit to goals that you fundamentally believe to be true and worthy, there is great joy in staying committed. Discipline is simply a way of steadfastly focusing on what you really want.
To develop more tapas in your yoga practice, commit to doing some yoga everyday, even if it is just one pose. For many people, it is more valuable to spend 5 minutes breathing deeply, or sitting with their eyes closed in silence. Consider something you would like to work towards, perhaps even something far in the future (increased strength, relaxation, or comfort). Then, choose a posture or practice that seems to take you in that direction. Each day, before you begin, decide how long you will practice: 20 breaths, 5 minutes… or whatever. It is important to select reasonable and realistic goals, so that you do not set yourself up for anxiety and disappointment. Commit to this decision, and begin. Even setting a timer can be helpful, so that when the time is up, you know that you have completed your goal.
The commitment and regularity of daily practice is a wonderful opportunity to find our inner strength. Some days I wake up feeling very busy, and I am tempted into thinking how much “more” I could get done if I skipped or shortened my practice. And yet, once I lure myself out to my studio, within a few minutes I have forgotten about the other distractions and chores that weighed me down. One commentary I read on the internet put it quite nicely: “Discipline doesn’t always have to be something harsh. It doesn’t have to be something that you follow because you think you ought to act in a certain way. It is how you care for yourself.”
“Discipline is remembering what you really want.”
“Tapas… is the choice of finding a better way.”
~ Doug Keller
Back to Essays Page