Since it is winter in the northern hemisphere, I’m thinking about heat. And that reminds me of the third niyama — tapas — and the idea of (figuratively speaking) lighting a fire that can transform us. As we begin a new year, it’s an especially appropriate time to focus on the third niyama.
Tapas seems to have many definitions. In addition to heat or fire, I’ve seen it defined as austerity and self-discipline, concepts that may not be immediately attractive. If you look up synonyms for austerity, for example, you’ll find words like seriousness, strictness, severity, and rigor.
But tapas is useful, so don’t be afraid. It is nothing short of the force that drives the journey to enlightenment. If you think of it that way, you may be more likely to cultivate tapas as a practice.
Tapas: A Yogi’s Growing Pains
Reverend Jaganath Carrera describes tapas as acceptance of pain that is part of the process of growing. Pain lets us know we’ve reached what appears to be a limitation, he explains. We create tapas when we make a conscious effort to move past limitations that cause pain.
Another way to put it is tapas is cultivation of the fire inside us—the passion for what we’re meant to do. The drive to become better helps us grow. Commitment and dedication are important aspects of tapas. I like the way author Deborah Adele describes it: Tapas “cooks” us until we are transformed.
Lighting The Fire of Tapas
We’re not always our best selves (and that’s okay). Often when we see an area of our lives we’d like to change, we talk about “lighting a fire under ourselves” to get going. This is tapas. We may need to get strict and serious for a while if we truly want to make changes. Later, we can usually loosen up, but it’s difficult to learn or master a skill if we’re not disciplined about it.
If you think back to your first classes, you may remember being very serious about “doing” yoga well or correctly. You may have wanted to follow the teacher’s instructions and get it right. Without this kind of commitment and dedication in the beginning, your practice may not have grown much. Maybe you would have quit altogether.
No matter how long we’ve practiced or how “advanced” our yoga is, we can always return to tapas. When we approach a new pose or delve more deeply into the practice, we need a strong desire—the fire of tapas—to reach the goal we’ve set.
And tapas doesn’t just apply to poses in yoga. It applies to all eight limbs of the practice and the yoga lifestyle in general. There is always a new goal we can fuel with the fire of tapas.
Feeling the Burn of Transformation
Is there a pose you’ve just begun to master that is still challenging for you? Sometimes the burn of an intense stretch makes you want to quit, doesn’t it? In those cases, you can use tapas to get into the pose and stay there. And what happens when your approach is “cooler”? You’re probably less likely to master the pose. While most of us can’t give 100 percent all the time, it’s usually true that the more we put into our practice, the more we get out of it.
The same is true of relationships, work, and everything else we do. We grow when we’re challenged and sometimes even broken, the same way our muscles must break down before they get stronger. When it’s time to step things up a notch, maybe by learning a new skill to get a promotion, forgiving a family member, getting more organized, or whatever we need to do, the fire of tapas will help.
We use the third niyama — tapas — as fuel for the fourth niyama, which is self-study. Are you ready to learn more about who you truly are? Think of tapas as having the courage to stick it out, even when it is painful—even when it burns.
I’m Maria, devoted yogini and author of Yoga Circles. I’m a writer, editor, and content marketing creator. I help small businesses, wellness brands, teachers, and authors publish books, develop marketing strategies, and communicate effectively in writing. Visit my website (link below) to learn how I can help you connect with more readers, clients, and students!