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Tapas in Action

By Anthea Grimason


In the second chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras we find Tapas mentioned in two different ways, both as an aspect of Kriya Yoga, the physical practices of yoga, and again within the 8 limbs of Asthanga yoga as one of the Niyamas, or codes of living. Tapas is often translated to mean discipline or focus, austerity, and associated with heat or fire. So what exactly is Tapas and how can it be applied practically?

You could say Tapas encompasses the full yogic approach of having the right attitude, having a specific purpose and having the fire or the get-up-and-go to see that purpose through. It is attitude, commitment, and sustained effort or discipline, but not so much effort that it results in over-exertion and burnout. Self-discipline, not self-destruction!

I like to think of Tapas, therefore, as right effort, attitude and focus, balanced with allowing, acceptance and understanding. Inevitably there will be times in life when the direction we take meets resistance, and the choice is to fight through or to accept and change direction. I find it helpful to think of Tapas as needing a buddy to support efforts, or ‘Buddhi’, the discerning mind that knows the right thing to do, the inner voice that leads us in the right direction.

One example of Tapas is getting up and doing your yoga practice before everyone else is up and when it’s the last thing in the world you want to do, because you know deep down with the help of the little voice of your Buddhi, that it’s precisely what you need. And when you do it, you realise your Buddhi was right. Your cosy, sleepy ego mind might have fought the idea but with the discipline of Tapas and support of Buddhi you did it anyway and felt the benefits.

So Buddhi is the intelligence or discernment to know what to do. Tapas is the doing. It’s the get-up-and-go, the fire of action. It’s simply getting done what needs to be done. Buddhi can help create a purpose to spark the fire, even if that purpose is simply having a routine that works for you.

Right Tapas

Buddhi can also keep us on track when the tendency to over-do kicks in, too determined to get somewhere. It’s our ‘buddy’ in bringing the lightness and balance, having the discerning mind to know what is right without struggling or pushing too much. If you say the word Tapas out loud it is sharp yet also light. It’s not TAPAS!! It’s not angry or bulldozer like, it’s sharp and focused, but light.

Tapas is also not monumental effort followed by being lazy. Tapas is consistent, continued effort over time, which is what ultimately transforms. Because to make changes in life focus, determination and sustained action are naturally helpful. Tapas is not wasting time.

That feeling of being ‘on fire’ when things are going right, you’re in the zone and everything is flowing, is also Tapas. Meaning you’re doing the right practice or actions for you and doing them well.

One thing Tapas doesn’t need is approval or appraisal, as it doesn’t indulge the ego and senses. It’s doing for doing’s sake. Take the practice of pranayama, for example. There are no outward physical benefits like gaining a nice ‘yoga body’ yet it’s immensely internally beneficial. So Tapas is doing what is right and what is needed, it’s being engaged and ‘in it’. It’s not always easy but it always feels right.

Cultivating Tapas

It’s too easy to flow with life and all it’s distractions without following a purpose or path. This is where meditative or sitting practices can be helpful, simply by creating time to stop, sit and reflect. We’re always going, doing, moving, working, talking, fixing, thinking and then the day is done. Stop, sit, even for 5 minutes in the morning and do it consistently. This is building Tapas, making time each day by creating a sustainable practice.

To start, you can simply close your eyes and check in with yourself, asking ‘how am I doing? What’s going on for me today? How am I feeling? What’s causing me worry or stress?’ Then take a moment to reflect and see the bigger picture, a broader perspective and notice the little things that distract and fill up your mind for what they are. Aim to let go of the worry. Next, consider what needs to be addressed today. ‘What are my responsibilities today? How can I make the best use of today?’ Commit to what comes up.

Another helpful practice in cultivating Tapas is that of gratitude, forgiveness and guidance, as taught by Paul Dallaghan, which only requires another 5 minutes or as long as is needed:

  1. Take a moment to feel grateful, to switch the brain from worry and stress to focusing on all that is already good in your life and how much you already have. Offer out a silent thank you.
  2. Then take a moment to say sorry to anyone you have hurt or let down in any way. Say it from the heart. Also reflect on whom you can forgive. Let go of the stuff that’s getting to you, see things from others’ perspectives, and try to understand and forgive in order to free your own heart, even if you don’t agree with their actions.
  3. Finally, ask for the help that you need, the strength to carry out what you need to do, the wisdom to know how to deal with tricky situations. Whatever help you need on a particular day, ask for it.

Anyone can do this or other seated practices to create space for Tapas to grow each day, by overcoming the distractions of the senses, instead allowing Buddhi, your innate wisdom to start seeing things for what they are and allowing the inner wisdom of right action to arise.

In summary, sort your own head out first, then do what needs to be done between self care (practice), and getting up and taking care of your responsibilities and others. This is Tapas in action. Day-after-day. Check in-See-Do. Do with care; do with love.

Article Name
Tapas in Action
In the second chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras we find Tapas mentioned in two different ways, both as an aspect of Kriya Yoga, the physical practices of yoga, and again within the 8 limbs of Asthanga yoga as one of the Niyamas, or codes of living.
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