Tapas is a beautiful complement to samtosha (contentment), partly because it offers some more concrete ways to get us there. Of course, the first thing that yogis will tell you is that observing tapas is not always pleasant (it can actually be downright painful), but the rewards, they say, are so great that it’s well worth the bumpy road to get there. The translation of tapas is literally to heat or burn, by way of practicing discipline or “austerity.” This can all sound a bit inaccessible at first – I had visions of lifelong self-deprivation and a permanent kibosh on any kind of pleasure, but it turns out that’s actually not what tapas is about.
Or, at least, it doesn’t have to be. Rather, tapas is about adding little elements of “discipline” to one’s routine, which is key to getting the mind on the right track, and breaking down all the negative thought patterns that can plague us, creating unhappiness or depression. The disciplines you add to your life can be simple: Carving time out to exercise daily; practicing yoga, meditation, mindfulness; and eating healthily.
Jennifer Schmid, who lives and teaches at the Ananda Ashram in upstate New York, tells me, “it’s through having a focused effort of self-discipline – be it asana, meditation, or mindfulness – that we purify the mind of impurities, habits and patterns that are no longer serving us. When these impurities are destroyed we begin to see the world as it is, rather than a projection of what we think it is.” In other words, it’s when we burn through our crutches (overeating, over-drinking, negative thinking), that we can be freer, and more in touch with the universe, and those around us.
Schmid does point out that it’s a big endeavor, tapas, just like the other yamas and niyamas, which ask us to go beyond our comfort zone. “It’s intense,” she says. “But in that intensity, purification is a natural by-product, well-being unfolds, and we literally ignite the fire of consciousness within ourselves to burn brighter.” Just think about the first few days or weeks of dieting or quitting smoking – they can be miserably painful, but then you start to see the benefits and feel more comfortable in the new practice. Eventually, the change becomes pleasurable (hopefully), and creates more energy to continue on with it.
Jeff Migdow, MD, who is director of prana yoga teacher training and lived for 15 years at Kripalu has seen what a little tapas can do, in others and personally. “The heat that’s created by the practice does various things: it burns away karma and it gives you energy to continue practicing. But it also gives you a certain vitality, a physical energy that emanates.” He says that during visits to India, he’s practiced alongside people who were almost literally glowing, so filled were they with the heat and energy of tapas. But like Schmid, Migdow makes no secret of the fact that it’s not easy, and can be quite uncomfortable at first. “It’s literally like burning up – you feel like you’re dying. The ego really resists it. But there’s this fire that gets created.” He says the unpleasantness in the beginning is actually how you know you know you’re doing it right, despite the days, weeks, or months of discomfort before the heat created from the practice actually feels positive.
That said, if practicing tapas is too intense, you can always back out of it a bit, just like in any physical yoga pose that’s painful rather than challenging. But if you can take a little discomfort while your brain is sorting itself out, then go for it. “When we’re in a difficult place, and things are starting to heat up inside us, it helps if our self-awareness steps in and we tell ourselves, ‘oh that’s just my ego kicking up, I can get through this.’ It’s a bit like jumping into the fire.” But, he adds, in the end, the heat that’s stirred up by practicing tapas can lead to extraordinary change, which can last a lifetime.
Where are you with tapas? Are you in the gritty, unpleasant part, or the energetic part?
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.