I have been practicing yoga for over 40 years. Sometimes it is easy to get on the mat and cushion. Sometimes it is extremely difficult. This is when I remind myself that tapas, the discipline of practice, is always richly rewarded—usually not immediately, but definitely in the long run.
In the Yoga Sutra, tapas is the third niyama (observance) in the eightfold path of yoga. Tapas literally means “heat, radiant fire.” It is the fire that gets us moving—the energy it takes to overcome our initial and habitual inertia and do our practice. Within our practice, tapas is the effort we make to go just a little bit further to discover what is underneath the surface. Tapas means going beyond our usual habits to reach toward the next level, to explore greater possibilities within ourselves.
Tapas is the ground for freedom, joy, and inspiration. It is more than austerity. It is effort without tension. It is not only the effort to get on our mat or cushion, but also the ability to persevere a little longer once we’re there—to hold a posture for another three breaths or to sit in meditation another five minutes. Most important, it is the commitment to do our practice daily—whether it is 10 minutes a day or an hour a day. Having discipline for a few days a week, then taking a few days to skip practice or shortening it to sleep in or check Twitter posts or read the news, does not work. Changing our deeply rooted habits—mental, emotional, and physical—requires constancy. Tapas is both the power to create that constancy and the joy that is the result of it.
Revitalizing Your Practice
If your practice has become habitual or stale or boring, it is time to apply tapas.
When you do, your day will start with more energy. So if you are having difficulty getting up in the morning to do your practice and you feel tired and sluggish, you can apply tapas by making the decision to go to bed at a reasonable hour and by being mindful about what and when you eat and drink, so that you can rest well and wake up alert and refreshed.
Consider the minimum practice that you can do daily—make it reasonable. Try setting up a specific time each day that you can do practice for a certain pre-determined amount of time. Start with 15–20 minutes every day, or whatever you know you can actually do without adding more stress to your life. Find the best time—before work, after work, before bed. Commit to this. When you do this, it is your tapas.
To make this effective, you will have to determine what is the Most Valuable Part (MVP) of your practice, and then build around that. If it is asana, then know what you want to focus on, how long you need to warm up and when to cool down, and how long it takes to do a short or long shavasana at the end. If your MVP is meditation, know how many minutes you want to actually meditate, then do something to prepare yourself to sit, such as a sun salutation or a pranayama practice, then begin your meditation.
If you have an emergency and cannot do your regular scheduled time or it must be shortened, know what your Minimum Daily Requirement (MDR) is. Mine is five minutes. I know I have that much time to do something. I know what my MVP is. So I know what to do. This is not skipping your practice; rather it is your tapas for that day.
If the time selected is interrupted or not feasible for any reason, temporarily choose another time that day and do at least your MDR. Then go back to your regular time and length as soon as you can.
Finding Deeper Wisdom and Radiance
To know ourselves requires tapas. Tapas gently nudges us to go deeper into unexplored territory within, deeper into the wisdom and radiance that is inherently ours. And through this discipline, we find that a little more light shines through, there is a little less pain in our body, and our hearts feel a little more uplifted.
In the Yoga Sutra, tapas is one of the three components of kriya yoga, which also includes svadhyaya (self-study) and Ishvara pranidhana (surrender to our higher self). We use tapas as a starting point, working with refining our habits and lifestyle and cultivating our asana and pranayama practice, then we go deeper with japa (repetition of sacred sounds or mantras) and study of the scriptures, and then we surrender into the richness of meditation, which reconnects us with the radiance and joy of our true self.
I’m into yoga practice for the long run. It is my life. And I have been rewarded again and again for giving myself that time to turn my mind and heart inward to tap into that infinite well of kindness that is hidden beneath the surface. That is when tapas feels like a sacred gift. I have used it to reinvest in my life. You can too!