Tapas—Riding The Heat

By Lois Nesbitt, August, 2009

Tapas, like most Sanskrit words, means many things to many people.  Most simply, tapas is heat, specifically the kind of heat generated by certain yogic practices, or a certain approach to yogic practice.

In the early scriptures, which still shape most yoga practiced today, tapas refers to the burning off of impurities. The idea being that we all arrive at yoga seriously stained by years of hard living, wine, women and song—the seven deadly sins, original sin, whatever.  So, we practice to rid our bodies of toxins and our minds and hearts of selfish, lustful, vengeful urges. We clean the slate and emerge pure as the driven snow.

Americans naturally gravitate to purity models—our culture was founded by Puritans, after all!  Note the 20th-century obsession with cleanliness and germ-free home-making, visible today in the ubiquitous hand-sanitizers.  We make amends for indulging in unhealthy diets with the more recent trends toward organic and raw foods and rigorous “cleanses” and fasts, where we refuse to let anything in, a kind of spiritual anorexia.

Later yoga, rooted in Tantra, discards the notion that we are “impure,” but salvages the notion of austerities. Which is where it all gets a little murky.  If we are essentially Divine in all aspects of our nature, why would we need to rid ourselves of anything?

The answer lies in another meaning of tapas, which is the friction generated by going against the grain of habit, of complacency, of doing what’s easiest, of getting away with things.  Tapas is the fervor of striving to be the best you can, which may mean shifting what you do and how you do it. So, if you are an intense, fiery person, the heat generated by a fiery practice like Ashtanga vinyasa may not truly be tapas for you; tapas for you might involve putting the breaks on compulsive, aggressive, ambitious behavior in all realms of your life—including what you do on the mat. I personally feel intense heat during the first few minutes of meditation; sitting still is such a challenge for me that it requires real tapas for me to stay put.

Swami Satchidananda said that tapas is self-discipline, not self-torture. Which raises the question of why you are practicing yoga at all, of intention. The Buddhists talk about right thinking and right action. Right effort is not the same as more effort. You don’t become a better yogi by doing more yoga or harder yoga; you become a better yogi by raising the bar of your intention to encompass something along the lines of enabling you to better serve the greater whole.

Tapas is a personal practice, it’s one of the five niyamas or personal observances.  Meaning, tapas has nothing to do with imposing your passions, your views, your yoga on anyone else. Tapas is not proselytizing; in fact, it may mean the restraint of not proselytizing.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, tapas is grouped with svadhyaya and Ishvara pranidhana(II.1) as the three crucial elements of yoga practice. Tapas is thus tempered by self-study (svadhyaya) and surrender to or alignment with the Divine (Ishvaraprandhana).  By really looking at and into ourselves, we glean which practices are serving us, which ones are merely generating more of the same old karmic imprints. By remembering that yoga draws us into alignment with the Highest, we choose to channel our energy into something much greater than the incessant building up and/or dismantling of our limited egos.

Tapas is a great tool. There would be no yoga as we know it today, on the mats and in the studios, without it. But yoga always invites you into conversation with the tradition and its offerings. What is tapas for you? What lights your fire? Look up at the bright August sun one of these long afternoons, and ask yourself where you could turn up the internal heat and ride its waves.

Lois Nesbitt

Lois was voted one of New York City’s Top Five Yoga Teachers by New York Magazine. Possibly the world’s best educated yoga teacher, Lois holds a B.A. from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Princeton. She teaches around the world, including the Hamptons.

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