Does the word Tapas (pronounced as ‘tha-pus’) instantly conjure up an image of an emaciated person standing on one leg on top of a mountain with eyes closed, and focused on realizing the Self, demonstrating the colossal nature of austerity? Impossible? The challenge in this post is to bring us down from that mountain of “impossible” to the plane of “possible” through personal examples and realistic practices.
The Sanskrit word Tapas has no exact English equivalent. It comes from the root word ‘tap’ meaning to blaze, burn or heat. Tapas is often (mis)understood as austerities with harsh implications, suffering, and severe penance. When we read about Tapas practices like exposing the body to extreme heat/sun, cold, rain, etc., we know it violates the yoga ethic of Ahimsā. While strict discipline is crucial for a spiritual seeker to overcome unhealthy habit patterns consumed in the heat of practice, Patañjali in the YogaSūtra, does not propose such torturesome practices as the body is to be respected as the temple that houses the Divine.
Nevertheless, Tapas is sometimes described as the ability to ‘suffer’ the adversities with the courage and positivity, to remain unaffected in the constant changing world. Gurus believe that the ‘right ‘ kind of Tapas can lead to cultivation of tolerance and fortitude necessary to sustain virtues like patience, acceptance, and forgiveness. Tapas accepted as sincere intense effort, promotes practice of yogic moral disciplines by exertion of will power and self-control. Charlotte Bell calls Tapas the ‘self-generating power of discipline’. While studying this Niyama, please remember it is this kind of Tapas that leads to Self-realization.
Tapas is the third Niyama listed in the Sādhana Pāda of Patańjali’s Yoga Sūtra. As with any sūtra, multiple interpretations are available for our study; the ‘correct’ meaning and understanding will reveal itself in time based on the depth and sincerity of our practice.
In the sections that follow, the first paragraph under the heading of the author briefly introduces the writer, followed by their commentary on the topic at hand. Their books and others are listed below for further study.
Kāyendriya-siddhi, aśuddi-kśayāt Tapasaha ॥ Y.S. 2:43 ॥
By practicing austerities impurities are destroyed which leads to perfection in the body and sense organs. “When austerities are practiced, the veil of impurity is removed. Then , perfection (siddhi) of the body in the form of animā (minification), etc., and of the [sense] organs in the form of clairaudience, clairvoyance, etc., develop.” Svāmi Hariharānanda Āraṇya.
Alice Christensen began her studies under her guru, Rāma, (early 1960’s) who, before his death, advised her to complete her training under Lakshmanjoo in Kashmir, India. She founded the American Yoga Association in 1968.
The Sanskrit word for this ethic, Tapas, is sometimes translated as “heat,” a meaning that is associated with cleansing or purifying. With regard to Yoga, the heat of Tapas refers to the purification of the physical nature. Yogic exercises and breathing techniques turn up your body’s thermostat, purifying the physical nature with heat so that it can tolerate the extra energy produced by the emergence of the spiritual body. (p.143)
When Lakshmanjoo [her Guru] talked about Tapas, he used the word Tolerance. Tolerance is an important characteristic of a hero. Heroic capability means more that the ordinary ability to withstand life’s pressures with steadiness, perseverance and courage. (p.143)
The practice of Tolerance causes an internal transformation that shows outwardly as a greater flexibility and a steadiness in the personality. Although upsets in life still occur, their results are not so devastating because you are aware of the support of your spiritual body and you know that you are not alone. (p.150)
Rev. J. Carrera studied under his guru Svāmi Satchitānanda Maharāj, (Integral Yoga) whose life embodied the truths of Śri Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtras.
Austerity is the struggle to live according to the principles we have set before ourselves and to accept whatever life brings our way. It is a process that strengthens and purifies us. In addition to physical toxins, impurities include obstacles of sūtra 1.30, anything that opposes the spirit of yamas and niyamas (sutras 2.30-2.32) and the source of all impurities, ignorance of the Self (sutra 2.3 and 2.4, the Kleśas) (p.151)
Tapas suggests a state of spiritual maturity. It asks us to recognize and accept life’s occurrences of pain. Yet Tapas should not be misunderstood as a passive, do-nothing-and-trust in-God resignation in the face of injustice. Mahatma Gandhi is a good example of this. He and his followers were well aware that they would have to face many painful situations, yet they accepted the harsh treatment without returning harm or even expressing hateful thoughts to the British. By adhering to nonviolence and truthfulness, they were able to liberate India. (p.140)
How to acquire Siddhis, superpowers by conquering the senses (as the sūtra indicates), is not what this blog is about. However, tips and techniques for training the body, senses and meditation are scattered among several previous blogs.
Many mystics call Tapas the ‘Great Effort’. By continually practicing Tapas as effort in my life, I am slowly beginning to understand why. For example, I found putting the Yamas and Niyamas into practice within family and work relationships requires intense effort. Also, fighting inner demons, harmful habits, rigidity, sorrows, etc., takes hard work and determination – all of which is Tapas – the great effort. This type of work needs the power of will, a spark to motorize ‘right’ actions. Hence, these words – intense effort, burning enthusiasm, determination, motivation – which makes the practice of Tapas more accessible to us in daily life – is the premise of this blog.
Where can we begin the practice of Tapas?
Remaining aware of our Inner Conversation:
- What kind of effort do I put in to complete a task?
- How often do I avoid doing chores or work with a bad attitude?
- How much effort do I put in to look good in yoga clothes or my favorite pose? Is that ‘effort’ real Tapas?
- Am I lazy? How do I combat my laziness?
- What are my stumbling blocks, excuses, triggers?
- Do I have the perseverance to keep on trying day after day?
Activating the power of Tapas has been a great learning. Two decades ago, I made three separate ‘control lists’ to help me understand how Tapas works and build a relationship with it; things I can control (turning off the television or phone, sleeping on time), things I cannot control (rain, baby crying, sickness), things that control me (desserts, potato chips). I look at these lists from time to time to see if I can cross out things that may not be active triggers or check on those that still need work. This practice has shown me how I can redirect my Tapas-energy to progress on my spiritual journey. On a side note – sometimes things may appear in more than one list. Don’t waste your ‘effort’ on trying to fit them in ‘one’ list. Instead, practice using the lists with the power of Tapas and see how you can transform your senses and mind.
By the way, a fourth list was added as an afterthought – list of excuses. We are all very skilled in coming up with excuses, don’t you think? Dictionary definition of an excuse is a justification to act or not to act, and to explain in defense why an act was done or not done. Next time, notice how you are coming up with your excuses to avoid meeting someone or convincing yourself that you really are ‘too sick’ to go to work? Yes, guilty on both counts. More we put in the effort to draft our excuses, more convincing they sound. Isn’t this a power of Tapas? It was amazing to see how I was spending my energy and time to craft the best, believable excuse without realizing that I can use the same energy, time and attention of Tapas to build my yoga practice.
At the outset of yoga practice, I tried my best to activate the power of Tapas daily – effort to do mundane tasks without complaining. When my daughter was younger we had many opportunities to wait – in line at the stores, at doctor’s offices, etc. Waiting is always difficult for children and adults alike. Since I was studying Rāja Yoga, this presented a perfect situation to activate the power of Tapas in the form of creative ways to wait for her, and cultivating patience for me. The quality of waiting improved immensely.
Tapas can also be activated to appreciate delayed gratification and letting go of the attachment to the results of your actions. It is also the power of Tapas that helps us stop being judgmental or to speak only if we can improve upon the current conversation.
To step on the mat each day we need renewed commitment. This too is Tapas. When laziness hits you, activate the power of Tapas to get you going. Instead of allowing obstacles to impede your practice, activate your inner resilience and step up to the challenge. Repeated practice of self-starting creates the grooves in the brain setting the stage for consistent personal practice supported by the power of Tapas.
Anything that requires effort is Tapas. In any case, choose one or two things to work on that is appropriate for your personal growth at this moment. Focus your time, energy and efforts to activate the power of Tapas and notice if your senses and mind are becoming disciplined.
Choosing to eat healthy by giving up sugar, junk food, or sticking to an exercise routine, or feeding the ‘right’ food to the mind and soul, digital fasting, etc., are all various forms of Tapas as it takes ‘great effort’ to consistently make the right choices. The sūtra presents the right idea – we need to gain mastery over the senses and mind which play a big part in intensifying a smallest desire into a major craving. Come to think of it, the whole science of character building can be regarded as a practice of Tapas.
Although Tapas is listed as the third Niyama, practice of all the eight limbs of Rāja Yoga is “the greatest effort.” Practice Yama and Niyama and observe their inter-connectedness with Tapas. Āsana, Prāṇāyāma, Pratyāhāra, Dhāraṇa done for purification of physical body, breath regulation, sense training and preparation of the mind that is necessary for yogic sādhana absolutely require the power of Tapas.
Obstacles are aplenty. Gurus look for Tapas in the form of endurance as a key factor for spiritual fitness. Remember application of any technique is a practice, a process; there is no instant gratification on the path of Sādhana. Continuously activating and reactivating the power of Tapas is indispensable as life presents innumerable opportunities daily that requires this ‘great effort’.
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