Understanding the Niyamas – Tapas

The Niyamas are the second of Patanjali's 8 Limbs of Yoga. They are moral codes or social contracts which guide us towards positive behaviour, especially towards ourselves. Here we take a look at the Niyama - Tapas, which means discipline, austerity or ‘burning enthusiasm.

Tapas Niyamas Marlene HennyEkhart Yoga

By practising these Niyamas, or observances, we cultivate a deeper understanding of how to live our yoga practice off the mat and begin to make real changes to our lives.

There are five Niyamas

  • Saucha (cleanliness)
  • Santosha (Contentment)
  • Tapas (Discipline, austerity or ‘burning enthusiasm)
  • Svadhyaya (Study of the self and of the texts)
  • Isvara Pranidhana (Surrender to a higher being, or contemplation of a higher power)


The third of Patanjali’s Niyamas is ‘Tapas’, which often translates traditionally as ‘austerity’ or ‘discipline’. The word Tapas is derived from the root Sanskrit verb ‘tap’ which means ‘to burn’, and evokes a sense of ‘fiery discipline’ or ‘passion’. In this sense, Tapas can mean cultivating a sense of self-discipline, passion and courage in order to burn away ‘impurities’ physically, mentally and emotionally, and paving the way to our true greatness.

Tapas doesn’t have to mean being solemn and serious though, this fieriness is what gets our heart pumping, heightens our desire for personal growth and reminds us of how much we love our yoga practice! Just as with all aspects of the Sutras though, Tapas has relevance both on and off the yoga mat….

Explore Patanjali’s Yamas and the other limbs in our guided online program:’The Eight Limbs of Yoga

In this series of classes, our aim is to help you achieve a good grasp of each of Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga through informative talks, yoga, Pranayama and meditation. Go deeper and truly enrich your yoga practice and hopefully, your life. 

Tapas on the mat

First of all, ‘discipline’ doesn’t strictly mean pushing ourselves harder in a physical sense. Sometimes just actually making the time to get on the mat and meditate, or practise for 10 minutes every day is difficult enough! For some, Tapas will mean making time to be still and observing the mind, and for others, it’ll mean working on strength and practising that arm balance we’ve been putting off.

Tapas is an aspect of the inner wisdom that encourages us to practise even when we don’t feel like it, even though we know how good it makes us feel! It’s that fiery passion that makes us get up and do our practice for the love of it, and by committing to this, the impurities are ‘burned’ away. Making the decision to go to bed a little earlier so you can wake up early to practise is Tapas; not drinking too much or eating unhealthy foods because you want to feel good in your practice is Tapas; and the way you feel after an intense yoga class, a blissful Savasana and deep meditation? That’s Tapas too – ‘burning’ away the negative thought patterns and habits we often fall in to.

Cultivating a sense of Tapas in our physical practice could mean trying poses we usually avoid or find difficult, or leaning mindfully into our edge within a tough asana. Realising that it does take time to get into a more ‘advanced’ version of a pose doesn’t have to be discouraging at all; having the discipline to practise consistently and the humility to admit when we’re not perfect are both essential to reaping the rewards that ‘discipline’ has to offer.

As Pattabhi Jois famously said; ‘Practice and all is coming’….

Taking Tapas off the yoga mat

The discipline we learn on the mat is a fantastic lesson to take off the mat and into our everyday lives. When we breathe through challenging situations in a yoga practice, such as a difficult balancing pose, or when we find the strength to lift up into an arm balance we previously thought was ‘impossible’, we can take these lessons with us and learn to be strong when facing challenging life situations.

Having the courage NOT to listen to the voices in our head that tell us we’re ‘not strong enough’ or ‘not good enough’ to attempt a more demanding pose or go for that new job opportunity is also an element of Tapas that ‘burns’ away those ‘impure’ thoughts, and leads to more self trust and inner strength.

Having the courage NOT to listen to the voices in our head that tell us we’re ‘not strong enough’ or ‘not good enough’ to attempt a more demanding pose or go for that new job opportunity is also an element of Tapas that ‘burns’ away those ‘impure’ thoughts, and leads to more self trust and inner strength.

Igniting the inner fire

Working with core strength is a surefire way to tap into that sense of ‘fieriness’ stoking the ‘agni’ or inner fire. The core is where our Manipura Chakra lies, and this energy centre governs our sense of self-confidence, inner strength, willpower and self-discipline.

The element of fire – which both the Manipura Chakra and Tapas link to – is also the element of ‘transformation’, and we can see this for ourselves as we take on those challenges we’re faced with. Transformation generally happens when we allow change to happen; stepping outside of our comfort zone and practising poses we’re not confident with or maybe a little afraid of is when we begin to grow and learn about ourselves. If things are too easy all the time, we don’t tend to learn the life lessons we need to make us stronger and more rounded people.

Travelling a bumpy road is well worth it when you eventually find a place of peace and freedom. The lessons we learn from facing challenges and fears are the ones that tend to have the biggest positive impact on us. 

When we work with the element of Tapas, it’s important to make sure we’re acting from a place of positivity and love, and not from fear. When we push ourselves a little further, we should do it not because our ego tells us to, but because we really truly feel we can go just that little bit further.

What does Tapas mean to you? The next time you’re faced with a challenge in a yoga class, practise facing up to it and igniting your inner fire – you’ll soon notice big changes on and off the mat!

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Emma NewlynEmma is a 500hr registered yoga teacher, writer and holistic therapist based in Sussex, UK. With a passion for yoga philosophy and Ayurveda, she loves bringing these ancient methods to the modern world in an accessible and easy-to-implement way through her writing and courses. Emma leads the Yoga, Ayurveda & Holistic Health course in person the UK and also online Modern Ayurveda & Holistic Health courses, giving students tools and techniques to enhance their health and wellbeing. www.emmanewlynyoga.com