Yogis On Fire - Practicing Tapas

Rachel Mack
Yogis On Fire - Practicing Tapas

The Yoga Rant is taking a look at some of yoga's non-physical practices. We're halfway through our examination of the niyamas, or behavioral restraints, of yoga.

This week we're learning about the third niyama, tapas.

We're Not Talking About Spanish Food

Tapas literally translates as "to burn," which is why it's often referred to as fiery zeal. When I hear fiery zeal, I envision wholehearted commitment and boundless energy, which sounds fun (not to mention gratifying). If you could keep fiery zeal going at all times, you'd be SuperYogi--you'd never miss a day of your yoga practice, have an off day at work, or force yourself through half-hearted daily routines.

But I'm Supposed To Be Content

This fiery zeal doesn't make as much sense when you think back to last week's niyama, santosha. If we're supposed to cultivate contentment, how are we also supposed to cultivate fiery zeal? This isn't the first or the last time we'll see a bit of contradiction in the yamas and niyamas. To me, the best way to understand this apparent conflict is to consider the context and apply our own discernment. If you work so hard that you're suffering from exhaustion and you haven't seen your family in months, maybe it's time to slow down. Take a look at what you have and make a sincere effort to find contentment in yourself and in your life. On the other hand, you may be so content that you've slowed to a stop. If you haven't left your couch in three months, maybe it's time to add a little tapas.

Feel The Burn

In his version of the yoga sutras, Swami Satchidananda adds more subtlety to the translation. According to Satchidananda, tapas really means austerity--and now it seems less fun. Really, tapas is accepting pain, suffering, and sacrifice in order to burn away impurities.

So, instead of a burning enthusiasm that makes you the ultimate achiever, practicing tapas means you endure the things that fire you up. Someone calls you a name? Instead of firing back, you keep your response neutral, or even positive. Once your anger subsides, you feel peace. According to Satchidananda, this will help you build mental strength. And he's right--if you can withstand the difficult moments of daily life, you'll be well-prepared for life's bigger challenges.

Tapas is a way of challenging yourself, ultimately for your own good. The austerity Satchidananda describes may be painful, but ultimately, you'll benefit from the heat of transformative fire.

Photo credit: Martenas