The 8 Limbs of Yoga - The Niyamas - Tapas

Kaya indriya siddhih asuddhiksayat
Through the intensity of self-discipline and purification comes the dwindling of all impurities and the perfection of the body and the senses.
YS II,43 translation by Mukunda Stiles

From the root to burn, tapas means self-discipline, effort, purification.  It is the discipline you bring to your practice, it is the turning up on your mat every day/week to practice, it’s the effort and the work and the dedication that you put into your yoga practice.  Tapas is the passion you feel for your yoga practice and the commitment that you bring to it.

The word tapas also implies purification - the elimination of impurities, blocks and barriers that stop us from deepening our practice.  These may be physical barriers, such as an inability to sit comfortably for meditation; mental barriers, such as a resistance to allowing the mind to be still during practice; or spiritual barriers, such as our inability to accept ourselves as we truly are. 

Tapas may also be translated as asceticism and in some scriptures it means the kind of extreme emaciation and practice that we sometimes see performed by saddhus in India (the yogis who hold their arms above their heads for decades; those who deny themselves food).  However, in Patanjali's sytem of yoga, extreme asceticism is not prescribed.

On an esoteric physical level, the Hatha Yogis expounded the belief that there are thousands of energy channels within the human body that get blocked and knotted and which stop the good circulation of energy and spirit within us.  It is tapas that burns through these knots and blocks, releasing them and their associated tensions and thereby freeing us to move along with our practice.  Strange things can happen during a yoga practice... we might feel tearful after a deep backbending practice, or fizzy with energy after a tough hip opening sequence, meditation can leave us feeling light and spacious.  These (often) unexpected results of practice can affect us powerfully and may be said to be the effect of tapas clearing through the blocks and knots within us, so that our energy can move freely.

Without tapas, nothing happens... yoga cannot be given to us by someone else, or understood through any intellectual process.  You must do the work yourself; experience your yoga in your own totally unique and individual way.  This is of course true of anything that requires effort: learning a language, or an instrument, exercising the body or motivating oneself to do something new.  If you want to learn how to meditate, start meditating; if you want to strengthen your asana practice, then practice.  Yoga teaches yoga.  Only through practice can the fruits of yoga be attained.  If we tend towards laziness and to falling into habitual ways of living, it is tapas that gets us moving, seeing, learning, doing and improving our lives in myriad ways.

Your body is your vehicle for the duration of your life.  It is the only one that you are going to get in this life.  It behoves you to respect it, to look after it and to keep it well.  Admiring your body for what it can do; taking care of it and nurturing it is important and it's an ongoing process.  We might say that modern humans spend rather too much time worrying about the bits we don't like about our bodies: the weaknesses, the body parts that are too big or too small or too pale or too dark, rather than rejoicing in the miracle of it all.
Sattvasuddhi saumanasya aikagrya indriyajaya atmadarsana yogyatvani ca
When the body is cleansed, the mind purified and the senses controlled, the joyful awareness needed to realise the inner self also comes.
YSII,41 translation by BKS Iyengar


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