The second of Patanjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga; the Niyamas are moral codes or social contracts which guide us towards positive behaviour, especially towards ourselves. This article looks at one of the Niyamas - Tapas.
By practicing 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.
- 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….
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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 practice 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 practicing that arm balance we’ve been putting off ….
Tapas is an aspect of the inner wisdom that encourages us to practice 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 practice 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 practicing poses we usually avoid or find difficult, or leaning mindfully in to our edge within a tough asana. Realising that it does take time to get in to a more ‘advanced’ version of a pose doesn’t have to be discouraging at all; having the discipline to practice 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’….
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Taking Tapas off the mat
The discipline we learn on the mat is a fantastic lesson to take off the mat and in to every day life. 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 in to 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.
Igniting the inner fire
Working with core strength is a surefire way to tap in to that sense of ‘fieriness’ stoking the ‘agni’ or inner fire. The core is where our Manipura Chakra lies, and this energy center 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 practicing poses we’re not confident with or may be 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, practice facing up to it and igniting your inner fire – you’ll soon notice big changes on and off the mat!