Tapas is a niyama, niyama means an observance and it is the second limb of Ashtanga Yoga (the Ashtanga Yoga we practice was named after the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, but when we refer to asana practice (the third limb) we refer to it as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga). Ashta means 8 anga means limb therefore there are 8 limbs on the path to yoga according to the Sutras (the ancient text on yoga written by Patanjali 5000 years ago.)
- The first limb is Yamas or restraints, these restraints teach us how to get along in the world, how to drop our ego and our I-ness and live morally among the worldly. There are five yamas:
- Satya – truth
- Ahimsa – non violence
- Asteya – not stealing
- Brahmacharya – preserving our sexual energy
- Aparigraha – not hoarding of material objects
- The second limb is Niyamas which mean observances, this limb turns us inward to do our Spiritual work, there are also five of these:
- Shaucha – purity, in body, mind, and heart
- Santosha – Contentment
- Tapas – fiery discipline
- Svadhyaya – self study of sacred texts
- Ishvara Pranidhana – Surrender to God
This month we are going to learn about Tapas, or discipline. I mentioned this last month when talking of the strength and heat built by the practice of Yoga Chikitsa, the heat that burns away the poisons is tapas. Tapas is a fiery discipline.
For your reference, the remaining six limbs of Ashtanga Yoga are:
- Asana – practice of postures
- Pranayama – Breathing and breath control
- Pratyahara – withdrawal of senses
- Dharana – Concentration
- Dhyana – Meditation
- Samadhi – Spiritual Bliss
Tapas literally translates “to burn”, burning away our toxins, our stuck energy—lethargy out of the body and mind. However most yoga schools describe it as discipline, sometimes discipline has a rather negative connotation of “difficulty”—and it is difficult to commit to a practice such as Ashtanga! Discipline requires CONSISTENCY and COMMITMENT. One of the highest disciplines is that of consistency; NOT LETTING LITTLE DETAILS AND ACHES OR PAINS KEEP US FROM OUR PRACTICE. Even if your consistency is only one time per week, KEEP IT CONSISTENT for growth on the yoga path. This yoga is very healing; many people choose not to do yoga because they feel little aches and pains—this is when you need your practice! Of course be intelligent about it—there are times when practice should not be done (such as an acute injury or fever), but “unless blood is squirting from your head” do your practice!
“The question always remains: To what are we really committed?
In order to go deeper, there has to be a wholehearted commitment. You begin the warrior’s journey when you choose one path and stick to it. Then you let it put you through your changes. Without a commitment, the minute you really begin to hurt, you’ll just leave or you’ll look for something else.”
According to some yogic traditions, old habits are broken and new habits established after a period of 40 days.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika on Tapas (The HYP is an ancient text on yoga, it speaks of the benefits of the asana practice)
Chapter 1 Verse 10 states:
For those continually tempered by the heat of pain (there are three types of pain; spiritual, environmental, and physical) hatha yoga will give protection like that of a tortoise.
Through this practice we will become fit and strong and this will shelter us from the effects of life’s pains. The HYP describes tapas as pain, pain itself is a type of heat that tempers the body, mind, and emotions.
We suffer spiritual pain when we separate ourselves. Yoga is the Sanskrit word for unity, yoga helps connect us to our true identity.
Pain brought about by natural circumstances is unavoidable, the course of nature brings about floods, storms, hurricanes, drought, etc. which will affect us. Our practice of yoga gives us the strength and determination we need to survive, pick up, and recover after an event.
We are continually being tested by physical pains as well, be it an illness or an ache. Our physical practice of postures gives us a way to cure ourselves and to avoid suffering!
When one follows the yogic lifestyle one is able to let the controversy of ordinary life as well as disease roll off as if we had a hard shell of a tortoise over us. In yogic texts the tortoise is significant. The body and mind should be structured in such a way that they remain unaffected by mundane circumstances of worldly events. In this way the body/mind is like a turtle which can extend its limbs into the world as necessary or retreat to the safe haven of its hard covering shell. The limbs are symbolic of our external senses which should be externalized when necessary, but which at our command can be internalized and unaffected by the world. To perfect this, practice yoga. Yoga will enable strength and control of the body and mind.
The Bhagavad Gita on Tapas (17:14-16)
The Bhagavad Gita is another ancient Hindu Text, part of the larger text the Mahabharata. The Gita is about the spiritual path of yoga, the gita is a story of a great warrior (Arjuna) who is about to go to battle—but is struggling with the idea of killing and his dharma as a warrior. In his agony Krishna incarnates to give Arjuna guidance and advice. The verses discussing tapas are toward the end of the story when Krishna is speaking of how to live a balanced life.
Tapas in the Gita is broken down to three realms, body, speech, and mind.
Tapas in the body consists of: purity, honesty, non-violence, worship or sacredness
Tapas in speech is using kind, truthful, and beneficial words
Tapas in mind involves self-restraint, gentleness, kindness, and compassion.
When these disciplines are practiced as an act of devotion, self-less, and ego-less, Krishna advises Arjuna that he will find balance (sattva).
Tapas transforms and purifies us and gives us control over unconscious behaviors and poor habits. Tapas builds will power and strength that helps us become more dedicated to our yoga practice. Georg Feuerstein says: “Genuine tapas makes us shine like the sun, then we can be a source of strength and warmth for others.”