The Third Niyama: Tapas – Inner Fire
“A worthy aim makes life illumined, pure and divine. Without such an aim, action and prayer have no value. Life without tapas is like a heart without love.” – BKS Iyengar
The third of the niyamas (personal observances) from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, tapas has been variously translated from Sanskrit into English as heat, spiritual austerities, fiery discipline and internal fire. These translations evoke a burning flame by which the obstacles to achieving our goal (which, traditionally in a yoga practice, has been to achieve enlightenment or ultimate union with the Divine) are incinerated. The Yoga Sutras explain that through tapas, mental impurities are expunged and mastery of the body, mind and senses can be achieved.
In the 21st century, not everyone who practices yoga has the same goal of achieving unity with the universe as the yogis of Patanjali’s time (approximately 2,000 years ago). Modern-day yogis may come to the practice to achieve enlightenment, or for a variety of other reasons: to find peace of mind, to reduce the effects of stress on our bodies and minds, to deal with physical pain or injury, or to become mentally or physically strong and flexible. Whatever the goal may be, when tapas is applied to the practice of yoga it becomes a powerful tool for transformation.
Because it has such an intensely fiery connotation, tapas may evoke images of a hot, sweaty, maximally challenging asana practice, full of long holds in heat-building poses, fancy inversions, arm balances and pretzel-like shapes. Tapas might look like this sometimes for some of us, but it doesn’t always. When discipline is mistakenly equated with difficulty, we get into some dicey territory. We might fool ourselves into thinking that if we can twist and grunt our way into challenging postures, we’ll prove our physical prowess and be more spiritually advanced.
Sometimes tapas might be a super sweaty Vinyasa practice. Other days it’s the self-discipline to simply get yourself onto the mat and see where the practice takes you, even if that’s to a few quiet restorative poses. It’s the effort involved in getting onto the meditation cushion when you’d rather be glued to your iPad. It’s the focus that’s required to remain centered with your breath and stay with whatever arises when holding an asana for several minutes.
As always, we need to look behind us to the steps just taken on the eight-step path of yoga delineated in the Yoga Sutras to bring our practice of tapas into balance and harmony. We can temper the fiery discipline of tapas with the first yama: ahimsa or nonviolence. In so doing we don’t allow our zealous energy to intensify into self-aggression or abuse. We take a kind, thoughtful and compassionate approach to our exertion.
When the fire of tapas burns too brightly, we might push ourselves so hard that we become vulnerable to physical injury or mental self-aggression. We can lower the flame by remembering the second niyama: santosha or contentment. We remind ourselves that at the same time that we push ourselves and strive to achieve our goals, we can also live fully in this moment and be happy with whatever it holds, here and now.
When we practice tapas in conjunction with the earlier yamas and niyamas, we balance our effort with compassion and our discipline with benevolence. We can work tirelessly towards our goals while still keeping our eyes open to the beauty that we find along the way.
Christine Malossi, RYT 200 is based in New York City, where she offers a mindful, alignment-focused Vinyasa practice that cultivates balance, awareness and equanimity. In addition to teaching private clients and group classes at studios throughout Manhattan, she also teaches at the Spencer Cox Center for Health at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Institute for Advanced Medicine whereshe designs a practice specifically tailored to patients diagnosed with HIV and other chronic illnesses. Christine is honored to be teaching yoga and to have the opportunity to pass on to others the joy and freedom that she has found in her own practice. Find her at www.christinemalossi.com.