Tapas (also known as tapasya) is the heat or energy that a yogi cultivates as they progress toward enlightenment. On the yoga mat, tapas is the heat that is generated in the physical body, the kind that’s needed to keep moving through all those fantastic asanas. Off the mat, tapasya can be translated as "austerity." We all need a certain kind of discipline to dedicate ourselves to our yoga practice. The heat that’s built internally – both in the body and the mind – is needed if purification is to take place. When you practice yoga, meditation and pranayama, you’re building your tapas.
Doing your yoga, both on the mat and in everyday life, requires energy and heat – which Patanjali
believes is necessary for liberation. Patanjali teaches that we need to
conserve our energy and direct it towards the ultimate goal of yoga – union with our higher Self, our Atman. (Learn more in The Seeker.)
Yoga practices require discipline and a dedication to spiritual growth. They require you showing up every day to do the work because you know the fruits are so darn worth it. These fruits, which are all part and parcel of the work of yoga, are vast, profound and sometimes even mysterious. The work of yoga is never ending, lasting a lifetime (or many) when you follow its beautiful course.
Discipline means learning how to control certain passions and desires if we are to Self-realize. There is a lot of joy that comes when we learn how to gain control over our impulses. Imagine not being dragged around by your sugar cravings, or want for casual sex, or downing a bottle of wine. Most of us have had some experiences in which we let our cravings get the better of us and felt bad about it the next day. In learning how to master ourselves, we evolve into human beings with greater freedom. It’s an incredibly liberating process in which we learn to let go of negative influences and embrace clarity, calm and a deeper understanding of what makes us tick. (Read more on The Freedom in Letting Go.)
Yoga Every Day
In order to do this we have to practice. We have to meditate, to do our pranayama and take to our mat each day. And how wonderful we feel for doing so! All the best things in life take patience and discipline, but the fruits are many! The tapas needed for yoga and spiritual liberation need not be viewed with reluctance. So many of us think, “How boring it would be to take on the monk’s austerities and disciplines.” These aren’t any more grim than the suffering most of us experience if we’re too attached to our thoughts, emotions, worldly belongings, and all the happenings of the external world. (Learn about the Roots of Suffering.)
Luckily, we don’t have to take our tapas to the extreme in order to be dedicated yogis. We don’t have to do an hour of meditation, an hour of pranayama and three hours of yoga practice every day. We don’t have to renounce all our worldly possessions or shave our heads and wear a loin cloth for the rest of our lives. We can find balance between tapas and modern living. Still, the tapas need to be there if we are to evolve. It’s both necessary, essential and even fun!
They key is moderation. We can’t practice our yoga if we’ve eaten or drank way more than we should have. We can’t meditate as well if we’re agitated because we overdid it the night before. Even if we fast excessively or sleep too much we’re less able to cultivate tapasya. It’s all about balance.
Patanjali's Yoga Sutras teach us how to have a purified physical body – by doing no harm to others, by practicing good hygiene, by being sexually pure. It also teaches us how to purify our words by avoiding speaking any that harm others or ourselves. We say only what is kind and helpful. We speak the truth. To purify our mind, we meditate. We keep calm and serene. We keep our mind detached from sensory objects and we keep our intentions and motivations aligned with our higher Selves. (Explore more in A Journey Through The 8 Limbs of Yoga.)
Tapas involve the body, the speech and the mind. Tapas isn’t about extreme self-punishment; rather, it’s about a quiet kind of self-control and reasonable discrimination. In this sense, it’s the tortoise that ultimately wins the race. Of course, it’s not about winning or losing any kind of race, but of evolving and reaching higher levels of awareness and consciousness, which makes for an altogether fulfilling life journey.