Tapas: 3rd Niyama (austerity, fiery discipline)
Tapas is the joyful willingness to do what is necessary to reach a goal with fiery discipline.
Tapas (austerity) refers to strength of character in resolute pursuit of yoga’s ultimate goal of the union of Self (Atman) and Brahman (God). The word “Tapas” translate as a spiritual purification or fiery discipline that burns away impediments that keep us from achieving our highest potential of Self.
Many have mistakenly practiced Tapas as self-mortification. Fasting, a meager diet, and other forms of extreme asceticism are not in alignment with our first, and most important, yama of ahimsa (non-violence). While the practice of austerities in moderation trains the will and develops body and mind, excessive asceticism and self-mortification has the opposite affect. Tapas is one of the most powerful practices in the Yoga Sutras.
The word “Tapas” comes from the Sanskrit verb “tap” which means “to burn.” The traditional interpretation of Tapas is a “fiery discipline” that is a fiercely focused, constant, intense commitment necessary to burn off the impediments that keep us from being in the true state of yoga (union with the universe).
Practice: Maintain a constant determination to pursue daily practices. Make sacrifices as necessary, but do not hurt self or other in the process. Be enthusiastic about the spiritual path. Be joyfulness with outer discipline as a means of refining a joyful inner discipline. Remember Tapas is a joyful willingness to do what is necessary to reach a goal with fiery discipline, it is not a punishment.
Tapas turns up the heat
Tapas is a practice of balanced austerity, sacrifice, and discipline. Tapas means “heat” or “fire.” Go through the heat and accept it – invite it in. Fire brings transformation while leading into stillness. If you are not in stillness, you are in craving or in aversion. In other words, you are suffering. Transformation happens through the fire with presence and persistency. As the layers of ego melt away, the truth of love shines through.
Tapas (Discipline vs Difficulty)
Unfortunately, many people mistakenly equate discipline in a yoga practice with difficulty. They see another student striving to perfect the most difficult poses and assume she must be more disciplined and therefore more spiritually advanced.
Difficulty does not make a practice transformational.
It is true that good things are sometimes difficult, but not all difficult things are automatically good. In fact, difficulty can create its own impediments. The ego is drawn to battle with difficulty. Even mastering a challenging yoga pose can bring pride and an egoistic attachment to being an “advanced” yoga student. This impedes or slows your progress. A better way to understand Tapas is to think of it as a non-attached consistency in striving toward your goals.
Tapas subtle energy/quality of life
If you think of Tapas in this vein, it becomes a more subtle, but more constant practice which is concerned with the quality of life and relationships, rather than focused on gritting your teeth through another few seconds in a difficult asana.
Ultimate practice of Tapas: Love yourself and your life exactly as it IS. Change nothing, but move with more and more presence and consistency. Be vigilant that your thoughts, actions and speech are rooted in love.