Based on the Sanskrit root ‘tap’, meaning to burn or heat, tapas is the spiritual heat of transformation. It’s the fiery intensity of discipline that is required to create necessary change in our lives and achieve self-realization.
Let’s take a look at:
- What Is Tapas?: The Senses, Austerity, and Discipline
- Tapas Practices
- Considerations For Practicing Tapas
- Tapas Yoga Classes
What is tapas?
Tapas Through the Senses
कायेन्द्रियसिद्धिरशुद्धिक्षयात् तपसः ॥ २.४३ ॥Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras 2.43 (translated by Swami Vivekandada)
kāyendriyasiddhiraśuddhikṣayāt tapasaḥ || 2.43 ||
The result of mortification is bringing powers to the organs and the body, by destroying the impurity
Because tapas is about our energy body, the teaching is often related to the sense organs. Our senses take a lot of energy and awareness away from the body, pouring it forth into things around us, that is, external to the body.
Too much focus on our sensory experience instead of our internal one causes a draining of energy, leaving our energy body weaker.
When focused less on the external environment, your energy is retained in your subtle body and becomes stronger. Swami Krishnananda states that this is the process of tapas; the conservation of energy and ‘the inwardization of power‘.
A higher practice of tapas, he shares, is that of centering your thoughts around God.
Both practices require introspection and Self-inquiry to burn away the impurities ego and mind.
Read about pratyahara here, which goes hand in hand with this understanding of tapas!
Tapas as Austerity
Another common interpretation of tapas is that of austerity, believing that austerity is an instrumental practice in allowing the kundalini energy to rise.A further translation of the Yoga Sutra 2.43 above is ‘By austerity, impurities of body and senses are destroyed and occult powers gained’.
Austerity is essentially performing strict sadhana, living a simple life, and dedicating yourself to God and self-realization (which may mean having to do things that are uncomfortable such as fasting from food or speech).
It’s self-sacrifice for the sake of higher development & liberation. It often involves removing things that some yogis perceive as being ‘in the way’ of spirituality, like running a household.
Tapas as Discipline
Unlike a sannyasi or swami, for householders like us, the practice of austerity may just look more like moderation in our everyday lives and discipline to practice yoga regularly (and not just asana), knowing that immediate gratification bears little long-term fruit.
Tapas is about creating the heat of transformation – a commitment to self-control, dedication, and discipline.
I have heard many teachers say this is one of the most integral parts of yoga; we must bring to our practice and daily lives the commitment it takes to cultivate, contain, and direct energy.
Swami Laksmanjoo has described this niyama as ‘mental penance’.
It’s a decision to make an ongoing, conscious choice to trust the teachings and show up no matter what.
Tapas may ask us to patiently endure and overcome mind-creating suffering, knowing that the energy can be transmuted and given up to the fire of Consciousness, causing our energy body to burn brighter.
Adversity has the potential to be our greatest tool for awakening.
Discipline vs. Motivation
There’s a chance that we’ve all found ourselves incredibly motivated to practice yoga and learn more about the philosophy (and ourselves) at various points along our journey.
One of these points was likely the start of our journey – when we caught the yoga bug!
However, for many of us, this motivation doesn’t stay forever. If you’re anything like me, the motivation comes in short, sharp bursts and then fizzles out when life gets busy. I forget how close the practice makes me feel to my divine nature.
Then, like a wave emerging from the ocean, my motivation re-arises; I become more dedicated than ever to get closer to my essence nature and dissolve my egoic structures (and learn how to do that chin stand I saw in our library, but that doesn’t sound as impressive).
Then I lose it again, the wave disperses back into the ocean, and the cycle continues…
(In Tantra, we actually call this type of expansion and contraction spanda. It’s a divine pulsation that’s part of the universal rhythm of Consciousness.)
This is why we can’t rely on motivation to get us through – we need more than that, discipline!
Yes, sometimes we really don’t want to meditate, move our bodies, or speak our truths, and this is where tapas comes in. It brings the intensity required to move through slumps and pushes us for the good of our higher selves.
Tapas is a practice of going against the grain of habit, which can sometimes lead us astray.
By developing an inner fire and practice of discipline, we are far more likely to achieve our goals by taking on challenges and obstacles that we might otherwise avoid.
Radical change requires radical action!
Life without tapas, is like a heart without loveB.K.S Iyengar
1. Get real with yourself
Ask yourself or perhaps journal on these questions:
- What am I avoiding out of procrastination, avoidance, or fear?
- What habits are keeping me from living life to its fullest?
- What in my external environment is taking too much of my attention or energy?
- Does this choice lead me to who I want to be? Is it conducive to my awakening or realizing the Self?
- Where am I avoiding discomfort and why? Am I making excuses for myself?
2. Consider the types of tapas
According to the Bhagavad Gita, you can work with three types of tapas:
- Tapas of the mind
- Tapas of the body
Maintain control over the body, on and off the mat through committing to asana and/or another subtle body practice like Qigong, sticking to a consistent daily routine, saucha, and maintaining control over the senses
- Tapas of the speech
Speak consciously, you seek what you speak! Remember the practice of satya here.
3. Deepen your practice
Practice consistently, commit to self-study, and, using your intuition, gently push your limits. Get outside of your comfort zone!
4. Go at your own pace
Don’t get overwhelmed with how far you have to go, just focus on the changes that you can make now. Little changes are better than none at all, so don’t put pressure on yourself.
It’s a lot less daunting to devote yourself to practicing pranayama, sun salutations, or meditation for 15 minutes a day than saying that you’ll complete the full Ashtanga Primary Sequence for 90 minutes every morning!
When you feel comfortable with your practice and ready for more, simply add to it.
Small steps lead to big results and it’s these little habits we curate over time that add up to the sum of our lives. Don’t underestimate the life-changing ability of seemingly small habits.
Remember, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step!
Considerations for practicing tapas
Discipline in the 21st century
In our society, self-discipline is often interrupted through a hustle-culture lens. This is a lens that glorifies an unhealthy balance between life and work and prioritizes success, usually measured by income and/or job title, over most other things.
A practice of discipline doesn’t always have to look like this and definitely shouldn’t lead to burnout.
Ask, what would really serve my highest good right now?
Tapas really refers to any discipline that is used to bring about positive change or liberation.
What, really, serves your highest good?
One thing to be aware of here is making sure you’re not falling into the same patterns.
For example, you might constantly be feeling like you need to rest, so skip asana or meditation instead of getting up that 30 minutes earlier. This might really be what you need, and if it is, that’s okay.
However, if you’re falling into the pattern of skipping practice under the guise of ‘I need to take it easy’ or ‘I need to be kind to myself’, this could become a problem.
In the long run, is skipping your practice the kindest option for yourself?
Listen to your inner teacher, but be aware if you start to fall into habits that you defend with justifications based on pseudo-self-care.
Self-discipline, not self-torture
Swami Satchidananda said that ‘tapas is self-discipline, not self-torture’, and this is something I want to emphasize!
I like to think of my personal practice as a practice of recognizing my innate wholeness for the good of all beings (including myself). I learned this from one of my teachers whose goal is for students to ‘discover your Self for the benefit of all beings‘.
It reminds me of the Ramana Maharshi teaching ‘Our own Self-realization is the greatest service we can render the world‘.
I think this is a beautiful and nourishing way of looking at practice.
So instead of directing your energy towards punishing yourself for ‘failing’ and not showing up, direct it toward curating a healing practice that feeds you, nurturing yourself, and recognizing yourself as an aspect of divine Oneness.
Another one of my teachers, Tara Judelle, spoke to us about the concept of sraddha written in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. She said that it’s a deep, deep faith – an absolute trust that this (our practice) takes us somewhere.
She taught us to believe that ‘everything is conspiring for our awakening‘. So, even in times that feel dark, we can use these as doorways to our awakening.
They are opportunities to drop into the Self.
I believe sraddha is a useful concept for you to apply when it comes to tapas (or pretty much anything in life), because, alongside discipline, faith is something that helps me overcome inaction.
Movement takes bravery and, for me, bravery takes sraddha.
She asked us to always think about how we can have an anchor to Self, even when everything around us is falling apart.
For me, that’s tapas. A commitment to deepening the anchor to Self. This is something that will always serve us.
Tapas Yoga Classes
If you want to embody this niyama through asana, why not try out some tapas yoga classes on YouTube?