Tapas is the third niyama, as well as the first of the kriya yoga practices listed at the beginning of chapter two of the Yoga Sutras. It’s technical translation is “fire”, but for yoga practice it is generally understood in terms of the properties of fire; namely fiery discipline and cleansing.
Kaya indriya siddhir asuddhiksayat tapasah II.43
Self-discipline burns away all impurities and kindles the sparks of divinity
While this is the most accepted translation and understanding of tapas. I find it doesn’t quite work for me.
We have the best of intentions with discipline, as we often think of it as:
What generally winds up happening is:
We become parental disciplinarians to our fledging selves.
We conflate discipline as a verb with discipline as a noun.
I prefer to work with the idea of commitment. Commitment to your chosen practice, to working hard, to whatever you are choosing to put your entire presence and energy into. The practice then becomes something you are in relationship with, as opposed to something that you are beholden to.
Ram Dass calls it “a deeper commitment to being free.” And says that if you make it deep enough, you won’t have to recommit in the moment when it is most needed. That kind of commitment requires the desire to let go of old habits, and the faith in your method to get you there.
In asana practice, we inadvertently begin building this kind of tapas from our very first yoga class. We are encouraged, again and again, to return to the breath. When we feel unbalanced, when we feel tired, unfocused, or confused – at first at the teacher’s instruction and then increasingly on our own, we return to the feel, the movement, the connection to our breath. And every time we do so, we notice how it balances, renews, focuses and clears us. We learn that the commitment to returning to the breath allows us to let go of old habits and experience gives us faith in the method.
I would add another component to Ram Dass’s, and that is “no matter what”. Or, as Dogen puts it; “Practice the way as though saving your head from fire.”
Recently, a student and friend asked me how to stay up longer in inversions. I answered with alignment points and other teacherly advice. It wasn’t until later reflection that I looked to my own personal experience. And the answer was “no matter what”. I was working on headstand. I was strong enough to hold it for awhile, but kept faltering around 25/30 breaths, and coming down. I decided one day that I would stay in headstand for a count of 40 breaths, or fall out trying. I would not come down voluntarily, no matter how much I faltered, no matter how scary it seemed, no matter what. And I stayed the full 40, and even went to 50. From that day onwards, I have been able to have a long headstand practice.
Now, it’s not that everyone must have a five minute headstand. It’s the shift from believing in your ability to fall, to believing in your ability to stay.
It’s important, to make sure that your “no matter what” is not born out of punishment, stubbornness, austerity, or thinking that this new state will be permanent, or that it will make your life better, or you perfect. That is why saucha and santosa, and all the yamas came first. You must be grounded in nonharming, truth, contentment, and impermanence before making this kind of commitment.
One way to make sure this is happening in your asana practice is the breath. Or as David Swenson advises: Effort where necessary, Release when possible. Skillful effort in asana is being able to breathe freely every moment along the way.
Another way to work with tapas in asana practice is to be aware of you distraction techniques. All the little finger, clothing, and gaze fidgets. All the mental ejections from paths of boredom, struggle, self-doubt, dissatisfaction, not good enough, anger, greed, frustration, jealousy, and other “dark” places we don’t like to spend time with. I actually will inadvertently start humming something random when my mind touches someplace I don’t like to go. Asana intentionally puts us in a position to touch on those places, and it’s up to us to commit – whether beginner or advanced student – to paying attention to where the breath, body and mind go at those times. To let go of the distraction, to not fix the dark place, but to just be there and breathe. And breathe. And breathe.
In some ways, tapas is practicing a keen awareness of the intention/motivation behind our actions.
In a lot of ways, tapas is the practice of moving theory and what sounds really great when the teacher says it during a dharma talk and you decide yeah, I’ll add that to my philosophy on life, to actually making it a part of your life. You become an “agent of yoga” as Davidji says. You commit to something that serves you, not that you serve. And eventually it becomes something that allows you to serve others.
ED Brown: What is the most important thing?
Shinyra Suzuki: To find out what’s the most important thing.
Just as the intense heat of fire has the ability to cleanse what it placed within it, yoga practice that is undertaken with the spirit of tapas (see above) is considered to have the same effect on the yogi.
What, exactly, are we being cleansed of? Didn’t we already go over saucha – cleanliness? Well, yes, but as happens with the sutras, this round of cleansing is a little bit deeper. Saucha was working with cleansing us of the obstacles to yoga mentioned at the end of book two. Tapas is cleansing us of the root of even those obstacles – the kleshas. There are five kleshas, and they are believed to be at the root of our suffering (in the Buddhist context) or difficulties in life/yoga/etc. They are believed to be the impurities we’re all born with and carry with us through life, even the wise. They are: not seeing things clearly as they are (avidya), misidentifying our sole identity as that of the ego or “I”- maker (asmita), desire for things that make us happy (raga), aversion to things that make us unhappy (dvesa), and a fear of death (abhinivesa).
Delving into those is a much longer discussion, and ideally done in person with a teacher or satsang. At first glance, it’s easy to connect with at least a couple of the kleshas and see how they are at work in our lives, and create a certain amount of suffering.
When working with the kleshas and the idea of purification, it’s important to keep in mind our goal. It doesn’t mean that we become “pure” or perfect in anyway. To work towards that goal is to muddy the waters even further. It doesn’t mean you’re trying to become something, it means you’re trying to do something. You’re trying to cultivate a certain way of doing something. As a basic premise, and a pretty solid mantra to come back to during the day, tapas as a purifying practice can be thought of as:
Acting to bring more consciousness into the world, and not less.