Tapas is one of the niyamas outlined in Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of yoga. The niyamas are the second limb, and they consist of 5 wise practices we can adopt to support our yoga.
Tapas means ‘discipline,’ and has the added meaning of ‘heat,’ and ‘intensity,’ referring to the effort it takes to initiate change and to sustain it over time. It requires a kind of will, a willingness and a commitment to staying with it, whatever "it" is. Our minds will always have a hundred reasons why we should put off our commitments, and tapas is the practice that moves us forward anyways.
Tapas is about stepping forward and moving into alignment with our deeper values and what we say we want and taking action on it, even when we don’t feel like it; even when it seems we’re not getting anywhere; even when we are uncomfortable because we are at our growth edge.
There is no change without resistance. Isn’t that a relief? There’s nothing wrong with you because resistance is showing up, and it’s not a sign you’re on the wrong path! Resistance will always arise. That feeling of inner collapse, of weight, of “it will be too hard” or “I can’t,” that felt-sense of dread in your body is completely normal and to be expected on a path of growth.
The skill we need when resistance arises is to identify it, rather than to collapse into it or resist it. We can feel it in our body, take a breath and know what is occurring. What I have been tracking is that very moment, that space between the uncomfortable (bad, shitty, awful) feeling in my body and what I do next. That effort to breathe and stay awake is tapas.
What I have found is that moving forward anyway is actually not that hard. I mean compared with bearing or covering over the uncomfortable feeling in my body. it’s surprisingly easy. Pausing as I feel my reluctance to move forward or the desire to collapse and move away (which can feel very compelling) allows me to get grounded in my body and breath. What I feel when I step forward in spite of the uncomfortable feelings is steady strength and capacity. It feels good. Sometimes I am able to make big strides, and sometimes just to step through that gap, but either way, I am building capacity. Facing the resistance head-on and opening up to it allows me to move through it.
Don’t confuse this with the ego’s counterfeits of over-efforting or whipping us into shape. For years that was my approach. I thought the way through was to cover over all the bad feelings the resistance generated, armor up, and charge ahead by sheer willpower. This approach required me to clench my belly, tighten my jaw, and muscle my way through. It left me with tight shoulders and a core that felt shaky and ungrounded.
True tapas, arising from our deeper nature, has a more relaxed feel and is grounded in an open body. I may not like the feeling of resistance, but if I open to it and breathe into it, I can move forward from a grounded presence. This capacity seems to grow out of a deep desire to stay awake and aware of my priorities and a willingness to be uncomfortable but to move ahead anyway. It yields a steadfastness in relation to my dharma.
I think about these words of Rumi a lot in relation to tapas.
"God’s presence is there in front of me, a fire on the left,
a lovely stream on the right.
One group walks toward the fire, into the fire, another
toward the sweet flowing water.
No one knows which are blessed and which not.
Whoever walks into the fire appears suddenly in the stream.
A head goes under on the water surface, that head
pokes out of the fire.
Most people guard against going into the fire,
and so end up in it.
Those who love the water of pleasure and make it their devotion
are cheated with this reversal.
The trickery goes further.
The voice of the fire tells the truth saying, I am not fire.
I am fountainhead. Come into me and don’t mind the sparks."
Mukunda Stiles’ translation of Patanjali’s sutra on tapas (II, 43) is:
Through the intensity of
self-discipline and purification
comes the dwindling
of all impurities
and the perfection
of the body
With gratitude for all the wise teachers who have walked before me and supported me on my path, I have learned so much from so many. We are not meant to walk through all this alone. And, the best teachers are the ones who support us in growing our capacity to understand and move through resistance to change. Tapas is the heat we generate when we do so. That heat is purifying. It helps burn through all that we are not to reveal what we truly are.
I'd love to hear about your experience with tapas. Please leave your reflections in the comments below.