We have now come to the third of the Niyamas, those observances that are part of our personal practice and recommended for our yogic journey. The next Niyama is Tapas. This may conjure up a spread of small plates containing delicious Spanish foods. I’m sad to inform you that in this context, it is not. Tapas is Sanskrit for ‘to burn’; but it is meant to describe ‘austerities’ or ‘self-discipline’.
One of my favorite quotes from Deborah Adele’s book ‘The Yamas and the Niyamas’ is: “Tapas is our determined effort to become someone of character and strength.” There is a lot to unpack in that statement, so let’s start with the first half of that statement. ‘Tapas is our determined effort’. It’s important that we look at the word ‘determined’ here. It is consistent, applied effort. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘determined’ as ‘decided, resolute’. It is effort with intention and focus. This is an important distinction. Tapas does not come from ‘accomplishing’ whatever it is your working toward. ‘Tapas’ is the process. We must hold this in our hearts, because in the West we are more focused on outcomes. But it is the ‘process’ that forms our character and strength.
If you have read the Yoga Sutras, the transliteration of this sutra is, “By austerity, impurities of the body and senses are destroyed, and special powers gained.” Seems like it was taken from the script of the latest Marvel superhero movie. So here we are guided to not just focus on the tapas of the body, but of the senses as well. Sri Swami Satchidananda, in his commentary of the Yoga Sutras, delineates the difference between ‘tapas of body’, ‘tapas of mind’, and ‘tapas of speech’. He states that, “with physical tapas we burn away our excess fat along with the toxins our bodies have accumulated.” Pretty straightforward.
Sri Swami Satchidananda then adds, “by mental tapas, we burn our old impressions.” Here, he describes the process of Samskara. The process by which we condition ourselves by repeating the same old habits and actions. Some may be good for you, i.e., drinking plenty of water, exercising daily, controlling your intake. Some may not be good for your health. This is where would implement new habits to “overwrite” the old ones. It is a difficult process and causes mental suffering. We can call these mental tapas.
Finally, Swami Satchidananda adds, “By verbal tapas, observing silence, we control speech.” In this case it might not be practical to completely observe silence. But we can observe our speech and work towards speaking more positively, or removing gossip talk, for example. Whatever it is in the speech that you would like to work on, ‘tapas’ is the process by which we replace those old, unwanted habits with newer ones.
As you work through your understanding and implementation of tapas in your practice, it is important to keep one thing in mind. We must strike the delicate balance between the small burn of determined effort and the raging fire of permanent physical, psychological or emotional damage. Only you know how far you can push yourself, but go back to our discussion of Ahimsa, non-harming. Keep ahimsa for yourself close to your heart in your practice. Make sure that whatever process you are going through, that you do so with non-violence towards yourself and plenty of love and compassion to guide your way.
Frank de la Cruz, E-RYT 200, YACEP, is a Yoga teacher and writer who lives in Central Florida. Frank began his Yoga journey in 2011 and strongly believes that Yoga is for everyBODY.