Tapas, when not referring to delicious Spanish snacks, means “to burn.” It is the third niyama, or observance, outlined by Patanjali in the eight limbs of yoga, and it encourages us to burn away our impurities. When considering tapas in our yoga practice, the phrase “no pain, no gain” becomes evident—but burning calories isn’t the only way to explore this concept.
The idea of burning away impurities can be looked at, like so many things in yoga, from a physical, verbal, mental, and emotional perspective. The first niyama, saucha or cleanliness, tells us that we need to be pure of mind and body. Tapas helps us take that observance one step further, and also tells us that we need to be committed to the practice. It’s about dedication and consistency.
Here we commit to the physical practice of yoga: asana. We show up to class, roll out our mats, and remove toxins from our bodies as we sweat through the poses.
It’s important to note that practicing a pose simply because it’s challenging is not practicing tapas. We must remember ahimsa and not do ourselves harm, as we build our practice. We must show restraint, or brahmacharya, and not push ourselves too far. It’s okay to work at our edge, but we must remain cognizant of where that edge is and work with it.
Sri Swami Satchidananda uses the example of practicing silence, which allows us to control our words. We can also control our words by simply thinking before we speak. Are my words going to add value or will they cause harm? Are my words coming from a place of kindness and love? Sometimes it will be hard not to speak your mind, but you will learn that it’s not always warranted. That is the struggle with words; that is the verbal tapas.
Satchidananda’s translation of this yoga sutra tells us that we should accept pain. As we accept pain, we should continue to bring happiness to others. That is the goal of a yogi.
This idea sounds less masochistic when we consider the previous niyama, santosha, or contentment. We have to clear out the mind, our hang-ups, our negative talk, and our usual reactions to life, to be able to stand calmly in the face of difficulty. Accepting pain lets us practice this. Things that upset us show us where we are still attached, and let us work on our non-attachment.
If we accept everything that comes to us, good and bad, we can reach a place of stillness. We can purify and strengthen our minds.
The state of your emotions works hand-in-hand with your mindset. When you can better control the way your mind reacts to internal and external elements, it will be easier to stay calm and better control your emotions.
Change is difficult. It challenges us and forces us to grow. It’s natural that as we follow the eight limbs of yoga and move along in our personal journeys, we will experience pain from time to time. Tapas asks that we accept this suffering to become better yogis. Each of the yamas and niyamas leading up to this point have helped us get to where we are today, so we are ready and happy to accept the challenge.