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Tapas

Tapas or tapasyā is the Sanskrit term for discipline for the purpose of increased alignment with our fullest self.  Tapas also means “heat” – something that we experience in our yoga āsana practice!

In Patāñjali’s Yogasutra, tapas is listed as the third niyama (guidelines for inner growth).  The other four are shauca (purity), santosha (contentment), svādhyāya (study of sacred texts, chanting sacred mantras, study of self), and īshvarapranidana (alignment with the divine).

We all desire happiness and freedom, whether we are yogins or not.  Yet ever since our youth, our teachers and parents have emphasized that we cannot enjoy freedom without responsibility.  Similarly, we know that if we are to achieve a significant goal, we will need to engage with effort, attentiveness, dedication, and perseverance. 

For example, if we want to enjoy having a healthy, fit, and attractive body, we will need to take care to get a sufficient amount of exercise and eat foods that, for the most part, are nutritious.  This does not always come naturally!  Sometimes, we would rather sit on the couch, watch TV, and enjoy some not-so-healthy pizza along with a sugary or other nutritionally deprived beverage.  Yet we have come to learn, hopefully in a way that has motivated us to align our actions with what is necessary, that important goals require substantial and sustained effort. 

Yoga philosophy agrees with this notion that we must engage in concentrated effort in order to achieve the ultimate goal of supreme happiness.  Since the goal that yoga philosophy aspires to is a very significant goal (the experience of sustained samādhi - full bliss and expansion of awareness 24/7) we might imagine that we would need to focus our efforts to a very significant degree.  

This is not to say that we must aspire to the “highest” goal of yoga in order to experience considerable benefits.  We might simply want to have greater health or deeper peace or the enjoyment of great community.  But even if we want to enjoy only these benefits and not worry about full awakening / enlightenment, we can readily agree that we will make the fastest and most comprehensive progress to the extent that we apply discipline in a regular and focused manner. 

Fortunately, we find that as we dedicate our energies to our yoga practice in a more regular and attentive manner, we actually find that the “fire” of discipline actually becomes increasingly sweeter.  We feel to a greater degree that benefits that our efforts provide, both for ourselves and our loved ones.  Tasting the joy of these benefits, we find that it is not so difficult to dive into the sometimes challenging aspects of our practice.  We know that, even though we might encounter some soreness or stiffness, some emotional resistance, or some tiredness at times, we are willing to endure these temporary moments of discomfort because of the benefits to which we can look forward.

So next time we don’t feel like getting off the couch, perhaps we can remember the third niyama – tapas – and recall how good our yoga practice makes us feel in the long run and how worthy our efforts are toward feeling better and enjoying a more satisfying life.