TAPAS – Voluntary Suffering

What is Tapas? A mystery to the lazy?… a magic ingredient for the evolving yogi?….accomplished athletes, yogis and musicians know it well.

Tapas is traditionally defined as to burn or to glow or a method to produce energy…or a process which illuminates the imperfections of one’s own personality

Tapas is listed as one of the five Niyamas or observances, which one of the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga from the Patanjalim Yoga Sutras. In many commentaries, tapas is often defined as austerity, penance or discipline. Simply put, tapas is the hard work involved in any transformational process.

A more esoteric perspective of tapas is tapas is, voluntary suffering for one’s own purification and development. This intentional suffering is one in which we place ourselves in a situation in which the heat of the moment begins to cook our entire being, physical body, mind and sense organs included.

By consistent, hard work, unhelpful or negative samscaras (habits), kleshas (root afflictions) are forced to surface in our awareness and then discarded, burned, released and purged. Ahimsa (nonviolence) and vairagyam (dispassion) have their place in ones life and practice, but we all need to do some authentic “housecleaning” to see the brilliance of jewel of the Self shine forth.

One simple example of tapas is sitting in a sweltering hot sauna to sweat out toxins. Another example is B.K.S. Iyengar’s saying, “the posture begins when you are ready to come out of it. Doing the hard work of staying in the asana even though our legs are shaking and our breath is becoming unsteady is what is required for us to develop core strength and stability.

Tapas for mental development or purification could be regarded as training our minds to concentrate on one thing for an extended period of time. This Tapasia of the mind involves harnessing the verve and inspiration to let go of our limited Self-concepts and unhealthy negative thought patterns.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali begins his discussion of sadhana or spiritual practice by saying along with svadyaya (study of the Self) and isvarapranidhana (surrendering to the divine), tapas is a necessary ingredient for any authentic yoga practice (YS 2:1). Without tapas we never make it onto the mat or meditation pillow.

Thinking about yoga, planning to do yoga, talking about yoga is wonderful, inspiring and easy. Doing the work is another. Going deeper into our practice consistently to get stronger and to get clearer glimpses of our true eternal nature is hard work. To taste the fruit of our practice is a great source of real joy and peace. Learn to schedule and manage your time. Prioritize work, play, eating and practice to create a balanced, healthy and joyful life for yourself.