Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2:43-As intense discipline (tapas) burns up impurities, the body and its senses becomes so refined that powers (Siddhih) are gained.
Defining the Sutra:
Discipline purifies the mind and body resulting in powers.
Modern Day Application:
Tapas aka burning aka austerities aka discipline is a key component to Yoga. It is one of the Niyamas or observances of a Yogi and one of the 3 pillars of yogic action.
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2:1 -Yogic action has three components: discipline(Tapas), self study (Svadyaya) and orientation towards pure awareness (Ishvarapranidhana)
What is the purpose of Tapas?
Burns away impurities-We are manifestations of the divine having a human experience. Impurities cause us to forget that we are divine and we lose our ability to connect to our true power. These impurities can be thoughts like shame, fear, guilt, and unworthiness. They can also be physical impurities such as toxins, viruses and disease. Our speech can be full of lies and also impure. The practice of yoga is designed to burn away impurities of the body and mind.
Creates an Unfavorable Environment For Negativity
Tapas is like a fever.
The presence of a fever is usually related to stimulation of the body’s immune response. Fever can support the immune system’s attempt to gain advantage over infectious agents, such as viruses and bacteria, and it makes the body less favorable as a host for replicating viruses and bacteria, which are temperature sensitive. –Scientific American
The fever of tapas creates an unfavorable environment for negative thoughts, actions, toxins and disease to take root.
For me, the tapas/discipline of going to bed early creates an unfavorable environment for drama ridden relationships. When I was growing up and I wanted to stay out late, my mom used to say, “there is nothing open after 12AM except legs.” She was right. Any event I attended after 8PM, was not something that was good for my spirit. There was usually lots of alcohol, drugs and boys. The conversations were not leading me to a deeper connection with my true self and my friends. We were bonding over a false persona generated by alcohol and bravado. Those connections did not last unless they were refueled through more alcohol and debauchery. In the light of day, the only thing we had in common were the events from the night before.
Even with my mom’s sage advice, I kept down that path. It wasn’t until I committed to a morning practice, and decided to adhere to the discipline of going to bed early, that I started to see just how much I didn’t have in common with many of my acquaintances. I also started to see that drama was the bond that kept us together. As I started to cut the drama out of my life, many of those friends faded away.
Going to bed early, keeps me from forming those types of relationships. I have found that, people I can speak to over lunch or a cup of tea, are looking for a deeper connection then alcohol and partying can give. They are looking for something pure. They want to know me and I want to know them. These relationships strengthen me. They don’t get in the way of my dreams and what I want to do in this world.
Helps Us Regain Control
When our lives are spinning out of control, we suffer. By Tapas, or controlling ourselves through discipline, our lives come back under our control.
Helps Us Come To Terms with Pain
We will have pain in our lives. We will injure ourselves. We will get sick. Loved ones will leave us. Good things will come to an end. Tapas helps to forge a positive relationship to pain as a teacher and as a human experience instead of as a punishment or something that only happens to “bad” people.
Shows Us What We Need to Work On
It is easy to be a good person when everything is going our way. We can hide our negative thoughts, emotions and habits when nothing is challenging us to bring them to the surface.
To go into a corner and say a mantram is easy Sadhana/practice. Anyone can do it. But if we are insulted and keep a serene mind, it is higher than saying thousands of rosaries of japa. This is tapasya.-Swami Satchidananda
Break the Bonds of Attachment
The Yogi does not entangle her happiness with outside things. The Yogi is at peace “just because.” They don’t need a reason.
Does Tapas Feel Good?
The definition of tapas is “to burn”. We catch on fire. We change form and shape. We transform. Fire is only pleasant when we keep our distance and it merely warms us. Tapas is the act of burning, not being warmed. Being warm is pleasant. Being on fire is not. Tapas is a fever that purifies the body, mind and heart. Fevers are not pleasant.
Letting go of our bad habits is not pleasant. Facing our fears is not pleasant.
“If you prefer smoke over fire
then get up now and leave.
For I do not intend to perfume
your mind’s clothing
with more sooty knowledge.
No, I have something else in mind.
Today I hold a flame in my left hand
and a sword in my right.
There will be no damage control today.
For God is in a mood
to plunder your riches and
fling you nakedly
into such breathtaking poverty
that all that will be left of you
will be a tendency to shine.
So don’t just sit around this flame
choking on your mind.
For this is no campfire song
to mindlessly mantra yourself to sleep with.
Jump now into the space
and exit this dream
before I burn the damn place down.”
The purpose of Tapas is to burn the damn place down. No remnants of your impurities remain. Everything is transformed back into nothingness. The anger is no thing. The shame is no thing. The fear is no thing.
Tapas is not pain for the sake of pain. Yoga Sutras 2:16 says, “pain, that has not yet come, should be avoided.” We are not searching for things to hurt us. Impurities, that are not deeply rooted, can go away on their own. One night of partying does not mean someone is an alcoholic. A momentary feeling of shame dissipates. It is the actions that we do every day that cause the types of impurities that Tapas is there to remedy. Impurities like fear of death, verbal abuse, disease, and persistent negative thoughts, are deeply rooted and need to be placed into the fire of purification.
The reason, Tapas often does not feel good, is because we are fighting the process. If we were able to let go and fully accept the moment, there would be no pain, just transformation. We have all experienced moments in our lives when we gave up something and we immediately felt free. If only every every transformation could be that easy. For most, it won’t be. The attachment is too strong.
If your Yoga practice feels good, you are fine. That is great. Again, not searching for pain. I had a Yoga student tell me they did not have any negative thoughts during practice. I was like, “that is awesome. ” A few days later, he threw out his back. Dukha, pain, had come to see him anyway. He showed up for practice and said, “I won’t be able to practice today. I will just watch.” I told him to get dressed and we will see what happens. We pulled out all the Ashtanga contraband. Bolsters, straps and blankets. We propped him up and even in the face of pain, he had a great practice. The Tapas was getting on his mat and practicing anyway. It was the act of accepting his current situation was a valid experience of pain and breathing through it.
Why Is It Important?
Yoga is mind control. When you can control your mind, you know yourself. Otherwise, your thoughts stick to you like glue and you forget who you really are. Tapas is the solvent. It burns away the glue that is attaching you to pain and suffering. It disrupts the negative signals long enough to form new pathways in your body, heart and mind. This process can be easy but it is often not.
Everyone will be free. It is your birthright. Yoga is the accelerated path to freedom. The first verse of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is “Now, Yoga.” Not, tomorrow, Yoga. Not, when I have time, Yoga. Not, only when it feels good, Yoga. NOW. It is for the person who wants freedom, now. Discipline or burning away of mental and physical impurities is an observance on the accelerated path. We can wait for our house to decay over time or we can burn it down. Tapas is the act of burning it down.
In order to be truly free, you must desire to know the truth more than you want to feel good. Because if feeling good is your goal, then as soon as you feel better you will lose interest in what is true. This does not mean that feeling good or experiencing love and bliss is a bad thing. Given the choice, anyone would choose to feel bliss rather than sorrow. It simply means that if this desire to feel good is stronger than the yearning to see, know, and experience Truth, then this desire will always be distorting the perception of what is Real, while corrupting one’s deepest integrity.
In my experience, everyone will say they want to discover the Truth, right up until they realize that the Truth will rob them of their deepest held ideas, beliefs, hopes, and dreams. The freedom of enlightenment means much more than the experience of love and peace. It means discovering a Truth that will turn your view of self and life upside-down. For one who is truly ready, this will be unimaginably liberating. But for one who is still clinging in any way, this will be extremely challenging indeed. How does one know if they are ready? One is ready when they are willing to be absolutely consumed, when they are willing to be fuel for a fire without end.- Adyashanti
P.S. Book 3 of the Yoga Sutras lists the powers. Go check it out.
Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail email@example.com.