An article I wrote for Yoga Magazine UK August 2018 - see below for the easier transcript!
Tapas – Igniting the power of your yoga practise by Khadine Morcom
You may be familiar with the word tapas in yoga, not as a Spanish small plate of food but as one of the niyamas (the 5 personal observances) of the aṣṭāṅga (8 limbed) path of Patañjali’s yoga. Tapas is the 3rd of the niyamas in this system; it’s meaning is often translated as austerity and along with the last two of the niyamas; svādhyāya - self-study and īśvara praṇidhāna – applying oneself to pure consciousness, form Patanjali’s instruction into kriya yoga. Kriya, meaning action, performance and sacrifice to name but a few of the translations gives us a clue into what tapas means and how we can use tapas to enhance our experience of yoga and truly experience yoga as a means to freedom. The root of the Sanskrit word tapas is “tap” which mean to heat, to shine, to give out warmth or to burn. We could view this on a basic and extremely limited level of getting hot and sweaty from a yoga class or if we look at the history of tapas, the purpose of the practises of tapas and the evolution of these practises we can have a deeper more authentic relationship with this niyama that is truly transformative for our yoga development on all levels of our experience.
The earliest references we will find to tapas lie in the Vedas (the oldest texts of the Sanskrit language as religious scriptures) which date back possibly as far as 1700BCE. The Rig Veda / ṛgveda describes tapas as the heat generated through particular ritual activity as a heat produced by the priest in sacrificial ceremony and also describes tapas as physical mortification of the body by tapasvins (ascetic yogins). Around a similar time of the Vedic era (pre-Buddhist) was the Śramaṇa movement of ascetic yogins who practicing similar austerities to those of the Vedic yogins were influenced to practise for a different purpose. The primary purpose in the Vedic tradition at this time was to win boons from the gods (make life good!) and in the Sramana tradition these practices were used for liberation (moksha) of the self through the stilling of the mind and the annihilation of past karma (action that leaves the residue of consequence in the cycle of saṃsāra). Even the Buddha spent time as a practicing ascetic before finding his middle way to enlightenment. Tapas evolved from these earliest roots to become a term used for meditation, discipline and purification which was emphasised by Patanjali in his kriya yoga system to free us from the patterns of habituation (samskara and vāsanā) and the sway of the elements of nature (guṇas) so we can achieve a state that is undisturbed by dualities and experience the liberation of identification with the puruṣa (the universal principle of consciousness). So, let us now fast forward to a modern yoga practise and how we can take the wisdom and discipline from the tradition into a modern context of yoga in the 21st century. If we explore the Sanskrit translations of the word tapas we can begin to gather a practical means of bringing this observance into a very useful tool to get us on the mat and bring a consistency and commitment to our practice that may at times need a little nudge!
Heat, austerity, discipline, enthusiasm, commitment, deep concentration or meditation combined together start to point us in a particular direction, that of establishing ourselves in a dedicated yoga practise. It is a going beyond a dipping in to an occasional class but moving us into a commitment to practice that is unshakable and holds real power. On some level we all have a level of tapas, that which brings us into a yoga class or onto our mat in the first place so if that tapas isn’t quite burning as brightly as you would like then how can we stoke that inner fire? Perhaps we can start with the earliest incarnations of tapas as a heat generated by ritual. We may decide to ritualise our yoga practice, clearing space, having a dedicated area, time, intention, perhaps lighting candles, incense and an offering of ourselves into the fire of the practise by allowing the practice to come from a deep interconnection with our inner experience of sensation, feeling and energy rather than an externally facing experience of thought, striving, grasping or simply going through the motions because we know it’s good for us on some level! Yes, it may be that we do receive a ‘boon’ of health, wellbeing, calmness and clarity that might make those early Vedic priests envious but our intention may be more aligned with the early Sramana practitioners looking for freedom. Perhaps we might explore ways of stoking the fire with new practices. Pranayama (yogic breathing techniques) is often associated with tapas as a means to stimulate the internal flow of prana and we know that meditation is also one of the definitions of tapas so it may be that by widening your areas of practice that more enthusiasm comes, more freedom from conditioning arises and the fire of tapas starts to be fuelled without the need of effort. We all however have those days where effort is required to get us on the mat so we may remind ourselves of how we feel following a practice and that actually the effort of getting ourselves onto a yoga mat for an hour is nothing compared to the effort and commit that was required of those ascetic yogins who chose to stand on one leg for 12 years as their tapas practise!
Perhaps we can become inspired by a yoga text or simply an inspiring spiritual or self-help type text. The Taittirīya Upaniṣad of the 6th Century states tapas as a recitation and studying of the Vedas and is clear that is cannot be achieved by ascetism alone. Likewise, we may struggle to move our practical, physical-based yoga practise into a spiritual discipline and development tool without some added inspiration from ancient knowledge such as Patanjali’s yoga sutra or other texts that have influenced modern day yoga such as hatha yoga texts, Upanishads, tantras and commentaries and interpretations of these traditions or perhaps we can find inspiration from modern day insights from spiritual teachers such as the ever-popular Eckhart Tolle. Bringing our yoga into more of a holistic practise to include different aspects of our being (physical, intellectual, emotional, energetic) allows yoga to be experienced on and off the mat and it starts to become more of a way of life than simply an exercise class and again this adds fuel to the fire so tapas comes by itself.
We can explore tapas in the context of the niyamas of Patanjali and feeling the support of the surrounding niyamas it may be that this practise clicks into place. The first niyama of śauca, meaning purity or cleanliness refers to an inner and outer purification of body and mind. The second niyama or saṃtoṣa refers to a contentment (in other words no need to strive beyond this moment, we can find peace here and now) and the last two niyamas of svādhyāya and īśvara praṇidhāna we know as self-study which we may interpret as studying texts or the deeper intimacy of the exploration to move towards our centre and the surrender or applying ourselves to pure consciousness. All of these practises together form a real basis we can work with to experience essence nature and the awakened awareness of integration or yoga.