Tapas, one of the five Niyama, is defined as “spiritual austerity” or “burning passion."
The heat cultivated through tapas enables us to burn away any impurities, samskaras (karmic scars), and anything that gets in the way of our ultimate goal of Samadhi, bliss, or enlightenment during our yoga flow.
The word austerity brings up a feeling of sternness and severity. It can even conjure up images of self flagellating monks, like in The Da Vinci Code.
While tapas can certainly be uncomfortable, challenging, and even painful at times - this isn’t the only way to practice tapas.
Tapas is essentially discipline. And discipline is becoming a disciple of something. What are you giving your energy to? In daily life? In your yoga flow?
Tapas asks us to give our energy to or become a disciple of our spiritual practice.
“Fear is the opposite of revere.” What do you have deep reverence to? If you revere something, you have deep respect or admiration for it.
Tapas asks us to have reverence for ourselves, our spiritual journey, and the practice of yoga itself. There is a seriousness that comes through tapas. But it should give rather than take from you. A disciplined yoga practice adds rather than subtracts from your life.
Tapas In Practice
Discipline does not equate to pushing harder through your asana practice. It means keeping a daily practice - not necessarily a vigorous one, but a regular one.
As teachers, keeping a regular practice keeps us curious about the practice. It gives us the strength to advance our yoga practice - whether that be through advanced asana, longer meditations, or through advanced study of the sutra and other yogic texts.
It keeps us disciplined enough to make it to our mats each and every day - even if only for a short meditation practice. And our students see and emulate that discipline.
This daily discipline in fact has little to do with the body - that’s addressed primarily in the first Niyama, Saucha. Keeping a daily practice is a ritual that addresses the mind.
Tapas looks different on everyone. For those of us who struggle with keeping a regular asana practice, tapas is what gets us moving on our mat. For those of us who struggle with keeping a regular meditation practice, tapas is the burning desire that inspires us to meditate for a minute longer.
Tapas is the fire that encourages us to continue practicing the poses that we find difficult, like that arm balance that looks intimidating so we avoid it.
And also the burning desire to live the yogic lifestyle - which includes being compassionate towards ourselves when we find a pose that simply isn’t meant for our bodies.
Tapas As A Lifestyle
What are the things that keep you from getting on your mat and feeling good in your yoga practice?
If you’ve ever stayed up late scrolling on social media or watching Netflix, you know your morning practice suffers the next day - or sometimes gets skipped after hitting the snooze button one too many times.
Choosing foods that fuel your yoga practice and feel good in your body is another way to maintain the discipline needed to get on your mat & practice.
Deciding not to overindulge in alcohol or caffeine on a regular basis takes discipline.
Even making the decision to not look at your phone first thing in the morning before your practice is a way to practice tapas.
It’s not about giving up the things you love, it’s about creating a life of balance. And prioritizing your own spiritual journey.
Creating A Daily Practice That Works For You
Comparison is the thief of joy - and it’s also a roadblock to discipline.
Each of us has a very different lifestyle, constitution, and responsibilities that make our day to day lives look quite different. Tapas does not ask you to change your entire lifestyle in order to keep a disciplined yoga practice or yoga flow.
Finding a schedule for your yoga practice, meditation, breathwork, and kriyas is essential for being able to stay disciplined.
What your teacher practiced or recommended you practice may not be the right fit for your life.
It’s up to you to create daily habits that make sense for your schedule. If you work at 5am, an hour long Vinyasa practice and 30 minute meditation may not be realistic for you first thing in the morning.
If waking up at 3am doesn’t work for you, how can you implement an evening practice that helps you keep your goals, stay true to yourself, and continue moving forward with your yoga practice.
How Can You Pass On Your Discipline to Your Students?
You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
Tapas can burn. And it may even feel painful sometimes. But burning away the impurities that keep us stuck repeating bad habits in the end gives us the bliss we experience in Savasana and eventually the bliss we experience in Samadhi.
So how do we inspire and encourage our students to build the heat required to maintain a disciplined yoga practice?
First and foremost, it's important to be an example for your students. It’s always more powerful to show than to tell. By maintaining your own spiritual practice, you show your students the benefits of a regular practice.
Ahimsa, the first Yama, teaches us how to treat others, our environment, and ourselves. Use ahimsa as a guiding light and filter as a teacher.
As teachers, we have the responsibility to model tapas for our students AND the responsibility to be kind and understanding.
Your students are on a different path, just as you are on a different path than that of your teachers.
Teach your students the meaning of tapas by showing up ready, enthusiastic, and disciplined to your classes. Take time to speak about the eight limbs when appropriate.
Shame has no place in the practice of yoga.
And shaming your students can turn them off from the practice for good. Make sure that all feel welcomed and respected when they’re in your classes.
Tapas is a call to action! Right action, and kind action.