Tapas is the passion that drives us to succeed. The most common translation of Tapas is “austerity” or “discipline”. This refers to the commitment needed to achieve any goal that requires a sustained effort. Most worthwhile pursuits, such as the health benefits from yoga practice, require ongoing commitments. Working against this is the ever-present temptation to take an “easy option”, like sitting at home watching the TV instead of attending a yoga class. We know that we will feel good after doing the yoga class, and that this is best for our body, mind and soul. Yet the effort to attend the class requires the willpower that comes from Tapas. It requires listening to our inner wisdom and applying the “discipline” to do what is best for ourselves.
I brought what I thought was Tapas to my studies of yoga. I attended classes every day. I pushed my body to its limits. This was the approach I had taken to achieve a black belt and a Ph.D. But it was not the right approach for yoga and it was not the right way to apply Tapas.
According to Swami Satchidananda, Tapas is self-discipline, not self-torture. It is right effort, not more effort (Nesbitt, 2009). It took time, but I learnt that the drive of Tapas needs to be moderated by the kindness of Ahimsa. Feuerstein suggests that Tapas should be Sattvic, meaning it should be balanced – the right effort. When we use Ahimsa to guide our application of Tapas, we take the Sattvic path. This means taking a thoughtful and compassionate approach to our efforts.
All the Yamas and Niyamas support one another. For example, Santosha (which is an active form of contentment, where we delight in every moment) helps guide our application of Tapas. As we drive towards our goals, we remain aware of living in the moment and finding joy in what we experience here and now. This enables us to achieve our goals while enjoying the beauty of the journey.
The literal meaning of Tapas is heat or glow and it comes from the Sanskrit verb ‘tap’ which means ‘to burn’. In yogic philosophy, Tapas means “burning off” the impurities in our lives, to overcome obstacles to enlightenment. When we are guided by yoga’s Yamas and Niyamas, all working together, Tapas means striving to be the best you that you can be.
A worthy aim makes life illumined, pure and divine. Without such an aim, action and prayer have no value. Life without tapas is like a heart without love. – BKS Iyengar
Feuerstein, G., (2016) Heating Up Your Yoga Practice: Understanding Tapas
Nesbitt, L., (2009) Tapas—Riding The Heat