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Tapas: Austerity & Self-Discipline

This month we explore tapas, the third of the five Niyamas or ethical resolves that the yogi observes. Tapas means to accept challenge, struggle, discomfort, and self-discipline as a help for purification.


The Sanskrit word tapas can be translated as austerity, self-discipline, creative heat, consuming by heat, causing pain or trouble, distressing, tormented by, warmth, and an attendant of Shiva. It comes from the root word "tap", which means to burn or to make hot.

The following excerpt describing tapas is from the wonderful book Inside Patanjali's Words: Explore the Heart of Yoga by Reverend Jaganath Carrera:


"Tapas, like any heat source, can illumine and it can purify. A campfire produces both light and heat. The light illuminates the campsite revealing objects and people within its reach. One of the definitions of the root, tap, sugests that as a result of tapas, an individual can shine upon -- benefit in some natural way -- others. But if engaged in in an unbalanced way, it is just a way to torment oneself

"Heat also has the power to purify. The classic example is the purification of gold ore. The ore is heated until the impurities float to the top where they are skimmed off. This process is repeated a number of times until no impurities remain. What's left is pure 24-karat gold.

"Tapas, as both light and heat, explains why, when Patanjali arrives at the sutra that describes the fundamentals that underpin all Yoga practice, the first word (tapas) brings to mind light and heat. In this one word, we see that the very foundation of the Yoga life rests on understanding that challenge and hardship are not mere uncomfortable experiences, but occasions that can help us break through the manifestations of ignorance allowing pure light to illumine us.


"The yogi learns to regard hardships as opportunities for purification from negative states of mind such as anger, impatience, or jealousy. Tapas is not simply grimly enduring pain and suffering. Adversities, encountered with the proper yogic attitude of acceptance, equanimity, and mindfulness, can become times of discovering or developing strengths and virtues that we never suspected we had.


"Tapas holds one more great benefit. Heat can also unite. How often have we witnessed the unity of communities when challenged by a natural disaster? Political, religious, social status, and gender all recede into inconsequentiality when we must endure a common struggle. Empathy and compassion rise quickly and, with great unifying power, allow us to nurture hope and behold examples of the beauty of human nature when it is freed from self-interest.


"Cultivating the attitude of tapas helps us convert experiences that bring only suffering - burning - into a heat that purifies and unites, and a light that enlightens" (Carrera, pp. 127-129)



Read the October Jivamukti Yoga Focus-of-the-Month essay here.



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