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. Our minds will always have a hundred reasons why we should put off our commitments, and our egos will forget and sleep through so much of what we call our life.
Tapas is about stepping forward and moving into alignment with our deeper values and what we say we want. Whatever change you aspire to, it will take tapas to achieve it. Tapas requires a commitment to take steps 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.<