A discussion of Tapas – the third Niyama

What it means to me, where I practice Tapas in life and yoga practice, ways I do not practice tapas and how I bring this practice into my daily living.

Any discussion on the meaning and importance of the term “Tapas” in the modern western world wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that many of us think of Tapas as small meals eaten in overpriced restaurants. It actually fits in this discussion because the definition of the Spanish word “tapas” is derived from the Spanish verb tapar, “to cover.” According to The Joy of Cooking by way of Wikipedia, “the original tapas were the slices of bread or meat which sherry drinkers in Andalusian taverns used to cover their glasses between sips. This was a practical measure meant to prevent fruit flies from hovering over the sweet sherry.” Wikipedia further describes Tapas as being either hot or cold, can be combined to make a full meal and are designed to encourage conversation. Consider this topic covered and still relevant in a yoga discussion!

Hold that half Buddha smile as you consider that the Sanskrit term “Tapas” is not too far afield from these small plates of Spanish food. Laugh out loud with a shaking Buddha belly as you envision an enlightened master tell the story of keeping the annoying “fruit flies of life” out of the sweet sherry of your contented mind by covering your glass with Tapas! Is your western mind having trouble following the thread? Here’s the analogy: fruit flies are to impurities as glass of sherry is to body-mind. The two will seem as one in a few more paragraphs.

In traditional yoga teachings Tapas comes from the Sanskrit verb “tap,” or “to burn.” Scholars writing about Tapas describe it as the fiery discipline needed for purification. It is the burning off of impurities and impediments (and fruit flies!) through a consistent, dedicated practice. Tapas is the first component in yoga in action (Kriya yoga).

Several sources of yoga literature describe Tapas in very strict terms using words like asceticism, abstinence, penance and austerity. I believe these terms cloud the concept in severity and harshness that seems unwarranted. It is true that bringing discipline and consistency to our lives and our relationships can be harsh and very difficult. But let us consider that as human beings on the difficult path to union and bliss (Samadhi) there is nothing wrong with having a hard time mastering Tapas. It may be an unfair starting point, for mere mortals working to gain discipline along the path to think of Tapas as atonement, repentance or a penalty for some wrongdoing.

Instead, I relate to teachers like B.K.S. Iyengar who describe Tapas as having a zeal or passion for “yoga in action” (Kriya yoga) that is a determined effort on the path. Tapas is the burning dedication and aliveness we feel when we are on a quest, a pursuit, or involved in a spiritual endeavor. This approach to Tapas feels positive and helps to inspire and motivate. At the very least it speaks to the concept of restraint as a personal choice one makes in exchange for a better life.

Another school of thought on Tapas that I personally am trying to bring into my life of relationships and yoga practice is the idea of abiding and of enduring opposites. I am trying to approach this form of Tapas with a passion and patience using continual awareness of the thoughts in my mind. Watching for opposites as they arise helps me see them and understand where they come from. I can do this by noticing what happens in my mind when I experience wildly opposite emotions (love/hate, joy/anger, calm/anxious), when I practice breathing (Pranayama) slow or fast, or when I stay in a yoga posture (Asana) for longer versus a shorter amount of time.

Many times in the course of a day I notice I am not practicing Tapas. One of the most obvious ways is when I finally realize that I have not noticed Tapas for several days! This is a clear sign that I am not practicing with any of the adjectives in this discussion: zeal, passion, dedication, abiding and consistency. Specific examples would be when I choose to eat breakfast or dinner before practicing yoga making it unlikely that I will go to my mat or when I meditate for a few minutes and then have this urge to jump up and look up something on the internet that ostensibly relates to my practice. The list goes on with things like becoming impatient or irritated at running into an acquaintance who is very different than I am and who talks at length on subjects for which I strongly disagree. Road rage. Anger or jealousy toward loved ones. These would all be considered impediments to purification, or on the simplest level roadblocks to being of clear mind to practice yoga, Pranayama and meditation with clarity and focus.

I continue to work at bringing more Tapas into my life is by choosing the intention and discipline to practice yoga and Pranayama everyday, along with the other 8 limbs of yoga. I work to actually use the words “yoga in action” when I speak and when I make decisions through incorporating the 3 components of Krya yoga: Tapas, Svadhyaya and Ishvara Pranidhana. I find that Tapas slips from my daily practice when I become too rigid on the length of my yoga practice or in the intensity of my Asana series. Back to the glass of sherry analogy . . . I don’t need a full glass of sherry everyday and a few fruit flies in the glass won’t kill me! In other words, I need to remember the Yama’s of Aparigraha and Brahmacharya so that I am not too greedy, clinging too tightly to how things must be or expelling energy in wasteful ways.

To borrow the definition of Tapas from the Spanish term “tapar” I would like to reiterate the idea that keeping a cover or a lid on your glass is in fact yoga in action – where you remain pure and free of fruit flies and where the sherry in your glass is always rarefied and clarified! Both kinds of Tapas are less like small meals and more like morsels that increase the appetite for the larger feast of life.

Notes

Translations and Yoga Sutra

Sanskrit verb “tap” means “to burn.” Tapas is a “fiery discipline” for purification.

Tapas svadhyaya isvara pranidanah kriya yogah  (Yoga Sutra – Chapter II, v. I)

Self-discipline, self-study and devotion are yoga in the form of action, as a means of orienting toward the ideal of pure awareness.

Tapas in Niyama and as Kriya yoga

Tapas is the third of five principles of Niyama and the first of the three components of Kriya yoga (yoga in action: Tapas, Svadhyaya and Ishvara Pranidhana).

Explanation

Tapas is the ability to endure opposites like heat and cold, pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow. It is often referred to as penance and austerity. Tapas is not simply enduring difficulties but abiding in the midst of difficulty. Tapas is having a zeal or passion for yoga in action and is a determined effort on the path (the Sadhana, or quest, practice, discipline, pursuit, spiritual endeavor). It is the discipline of consistency that is focused on the quality of life and relationships. Consistency is difficult because it requires a dedication to practice (postures, meditation, breathing) regardless of external circumstances. Tapas is having a willingness to begin practice again and again, over and over to bring awareness to the present moment.

Purpose of Tapas

The purpose of Tapas is to bring strength to the body and mind through the elimination of impurities. This happens by burning off impediments that keep us from being in the state of yoga. The body prepares to hold the infinite consciousness and the body-mind can come to see the divine that is in everyone.

Sources

Judith Lasater: http://www.judithlasater.com/writings/livingtheniyamas2.html

Chip Hartranft – The Yoga-Sutra in English, Appendix B, The Wisdom of Yoga by Stephen Cope.

B.K.S. Iyengar, Core of the Yoga Sutras