Tapas is one of the Niyamas (observances) as stated by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. It is just one of 10 things we should adhere to alongside our asana practice when traveling the path towards Yoga. The Yamas (restraints) and Niyamas (observances) are the foundation for how we behave towards others as well as how we behave towards ourselves. The Yamas and Niyamas are the framework which can help us live our Yoga off the mat and interact with the world around us. They are crucial for a holistic experience of the practice and are the way in which we can allow Yoga to permeate through our entire life experience. The Niyamas include Santosha (contentment), Shauca (cleanliness) as well as Svadhyaya (self study), Ishvara pranidhana (surrender to god) and, Tapas.
Tapas is derived from the root word ‘tap meaning to burn, blaze, shine, suffer pain or consume by heat. It therefore means a burning effort under all circumstances to achieve a definite goal in life.
Tapas is the conscious effort to achieve ultimate union with the divine and to burn up all desires that stand in the way of this goal (p.18, ‘Light on Yoga’, 2001 edition)
In Sri Swami Satchidananda’s translation of ‘The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’ Book 2 sutra 1 states that
Tapah Svadhyayesvara Pranidhanani Kriya Yogah
‘Accepting pain as help for purification, study of spiritual books, and surrender to the Supreme Being constitute Yoga in practice.’
Here the translation of Tapas as the pain suffered from fire or heat is used. Tapas is described as accepting pain as part of a process of purification and the removal of impurities through fire.
Fire holds a very important place in Yoga philosophy. It is seen to burn off all that we don’t truly need and reveal the higher truth. It is the fire and light that illuminates reality from Maya, the illusion, we have been living. It is why many Swami’s wear orange – to represent the fire of knowledge and truth that has burnt away their previous self. Fire is seen as the ultimate transformational force. There is no death in Yoga only transformation and change – the process of birth, sustainment, dissolution and then rebirth again.
Tapas can be seen as determination and perseverance to stay with our practice through perceived pain and suffering. The pain of getting up early in the dark, the suffering of sitting on our mat when it’s cold and we feel frumpy, creaky and ancient, the pain of being nice to that horrible and annoying person, the pain of telling the truth even though it is difficult and hurts. The suffering of being honest with ourselves and owning the feelings we are scared to feel and want to blame someone else for.
There is suffering we want to burn off and push through, and there is pain we absolutely need to listen to. We do NOT want to push through the pain and suffering of a hamstring attachment injury, sacroillac joint misalignment, strained knee ligaments, torn or pulled soft tissue of any kind at all.
If this discipline and ‘fiery determination’, as Judith Hansen-Lasater describes it, of tapas sounds all a bit too difficult then remember that it all starts with love. The love and faith to just keep going, to keep practicing anyway, to get back on our mat even when we don’t want to, to look at the difficult stuff even if it is hard and might be painful.
Tapas is the fire to illuminate and burn away all that we don’t need, allowing us to transform and grow.