Updated: Feb 26, 2021
Tapas - तपस्
by Sarah S.
Endurance and passion are what makes us move mountains, metaphorically speaking. In a more literal setting, endurance can be what we need, in order to stay calm in times of upheaval in the mental and physical realm. For a lot of us the longevity of the “slowdown”, as we like to call it at Yoga on the Move, has made us feel uncomfortable, as we are used to being in constant movement. Slowing down may feel stagnant, yet the discomfort of the unknown is a perfect opportunity, a gift even, to practice endurance and purify through our strength and commitment. A practice called Tapas, in ancient yogic terms.
Tapas translates to “purification through discipline,” “commitment,” or “internal fire.” Tapas is one of the 5 Niyamas, the five recommendations of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra for living. It means intense spiritual practice , which one performs with enthusiasm. Tapas in general means spiritual discipline.
Patanjali says: “Tapas dissolves impurities and energises the body and senses. ”
Tapas is the third of the Niyamas. Niyamas are recommendations for living. Patanjali says in the Yoga Sutra: one should perform tapas in such a way that it leads to sattva, to purity, it should be healthy for body and psyche. Tapas (spiritual practices) should be done every day. Such as: meditation, asana (postures), pranayama (breathing techniques), mantra chanting or other spiritual practices.
A guiding principle for tapas exercises could be: "Yes, I do what I can. And I am also willing to do unpleasant things. I'm willing to practice until I like doing it!" It's like a mantra you say to yourself before any intense spiritual practice.
In fact, tapas in an even wider sense also means, "Consciously doing things you don't like, as long as they are pure/healthy for your body and psyche."
An example from everyday life could be that you live with your family or in a shared apartment with others. Ask yourself the question, "What task do I not like to do?" and then volunteer for that very task. Then practice that task or activity until you like it and enjoy doing it. When you do this as your tapas automatically, you have created an incredible strength of mind because the task becomes a part of you and with that you let go of negative thought patterns and feelings towards the task. To achieve this very state of liberation, you must seek out those very activities that you really don't like to do.
Another example of tapas could be: getting up at 4 a. m. every morning. Especially now, in the time of home office, it is important to get up early to start the day with a good attitude. Feel your body and psyche gradually adapting to getting up early in the morning and after a time of training it becomes normal and you start to like it.
Establish a morning ritual, your personal tapas, making sure there is at least one exercise you don’t like to do.
Pranayama Breathing Techniques
Intense powers and abilities
Through the intense practice of tapas, the gate is opened to acquire incredible powers and abilities. It is said that Swami Sivananda (Indian yoga master and teacher of Vedanta), was able to move so much because he had practiced intensive tapas for 12 years. And with that comes the recommendation to spend at least once in a lifetime, a few weeks, maybe even months, in very intense spiritual practice.
Looking at Pranayama in totality, the practice is a case of supreme tapas. It can mean to heat, burn, or in this case, burn off all impurities that reside in us. Through this practice, deep emotions are lifted and brought to the surface. Through Pranayama, we begin to dilute these emotions and work with them in a gentle manner. In order to increase our awareness, and confront the ego, we have to go through many layers. We hold tension in the physical body, the breath, and lastly in our thoughts. If we dig deep, and move through all these layers we can reach a state of freedom.
Pranayama is a powerful practice that allows us to do so and bring up all that is not needed. In the act of letting go of what is not needed, we free ourselves and make room to connect with our strengths and abilities.
Pranayama exercises to integrate into your spiritual practice
Nadhi Sodhana aka Anuloma Viloma - alternate nostril breathing
Kapalabhati - skull shining breath/internal kriya, or cleansing technique
Ujjayi - victorious breath/ocean breath
regulates & transformed body, emotion & mind
Tapas can mean cultivating a sense of self-discipline, passion and courage in order to burn away ‘impurities’ physically, mentally and emotionally, and paving the way to our true greatness. Meditation can help to cleanse physically, mentally and emotionally and is a great way to start with as a tapas exercise in your daily life. For example, it can be performed as a ritual in the morning or before going to bed.
Tapas Mantra - Om agnaye namaha
Invoke that which you wish to transform through heat or fire (agni or agnaye) by chanting the mantra: Om agnaye namaha
Tapas on the mat
First of all, ‘discipline’ doesn’t strictly mean pushing ourselves harder in a physical sense. Sometimes, simply making the time to get on the mat and meditate, or practice for 10 minutes every day may take a moment’s effort! For some, tapas will mean making time to be still and observing the mind, and for others, it’ll mean working on strength and practicing that arm balance we’ve been putting off.
Tapas is an aspect of the inner wisdom that encourages us to practice even when we don’t feel like it, even though we know how good it makes us feel! It’s that fiery passion that makes us get up and do our practice for the love of it, and by committing to this, the impurities are ‘burned’ away.
Making the decision to go to bed a little earlier so you can wake up early to practice is tapas; not drinking too much or eating unhealthy foods because you want to feel good in your practice is tapas; and the way you feel after an intense yoga class, a blissful Savasana and deep meditation? That’s tapas too – ‘burning’ away the negative thought patterns and habits we often fall into.
Cultivating a sense of tapas in our physical practice could mean trying poses we usually avoid or find difficult, or leaning mindfully into our edge within a tough asana. Realising that it does take time to get into a more ‘advanced’ version of a pose doesn’t have to be discouraging at all; having the discipline to practice consistently and the humility to admit when we’re not quite there yet are both essential to reaping the rewards that ‘discipline’ has to offer.
‘Practice and all is coming’
Asanas that are more challenging and can be integrated into your practice
Urdhva Dhanurasana - Wheel Pose
Hanumanasana - Spagat/Split
Bakasana - Crow Pose
Astavakrasana - Eight angle pose
Beyond the yoga mat
The discipline we learn on the mat is a fantastic lesson to take off the mat and into our everyday lives. When we breathe through challenging situations in a yoga practice, such as a difficult balancing pose, or when we find the strength to lift up into an arm balance we previously thought was inaccessible, we can take these lessons with us and learn to be strong when facing challenging life situations, as we are collectively facing in times of a pandemic.
Having the courage NOT to listen to the voices in our head that tell us we’re ‘not strong enough’ or ‘not good enough’ to attempt a more demanding pose or go for that new job opportunity is also an element of tapas that ‘burns’ away those ‘impure’ thoughts, and leads to more self trust and inner strength.
More inspiration - further reading
To learn more about Sarah visit her website.