Tapas – The First Instrument of Doing Yoga
By Paul Dallaghan, 17 June 2010
Are you willing to work on yourself, endure some temporary hardships, keep an even mind through the changing circumstances, in some cases making do with less, without any prospect of material reward, only a statement that inner purification will occur? How often do you make a promise, something simple like today I will not get angry when something goes wrong yet you do? How high do comforts and luxuries rate in your satisfaction level? How is your control over the amount you eat, the amount you speak, the desire for many creature comforts? How willing are you to fulfill your duties, to stick to the truth, to be inwardly balanced while the outer material circumstances change, to be respectful and of service to one you consider a guide or teacher?
The above questions can highlight your overall approach and attitude within yoga. It is effectively highlighting your ability for the practice of yoga as identified through tapas. “When the body develops the power to endure hardship and when the mind does not get easily upset by lack of physical comfort, one becomes qualified for practicing yoga” (Swami Hariharananda).
Tapas is most commonly translated as austerity, defined as conditions or attitudes characterized by severity or asceticism or an appearance or style of extreme plainness and simplicity. We hear much of it today with European countries making their austerity measure budgets, involving less spending, more taxes, reduced pay for public sector and a strong control over their debt. And there are riots and protests as a result. Who wants to cut back and make do with less than they have gotten used to over the past few years, even if it was in excess then?
Tapas is the first word of Sadhana Pada (YS II.1), the second chapter of Patanjali Yoga Sutras. In a sense it is the first instrument of yoga. It is mentioned as a Kriya Yoga, an actual doing of or practicing of techniques for yoga and thus considered actual physical practices. For the average person it is pretty much the start of yoga and is quite obviously expressed so by Patanjali. There are two other elements involved in Kriya yoga, namely Svadhyaya and Ishvara Pranidhana, self-study and surrender. It is often interpreted that if tapas is the physical practice, svadhyaya is the verbal practice and ishvara pranidhana is the mental practice, all constituting the instruments of doing yoga.
Tapas also comes up in the Ashtanga under Niyamas (YS II.32). It is not mere repetition but revealing the two sides of tapas and its importance in development. If tapas as a kriya is doing then tapas as a niyama is the attitude. Of course both include elements of each other.
Self discipline with a worldly aim will not constitute tapas, where you know you are going to finish and gain something from it. To be able to discipline yourself purely for self growth and endure the difficulties that come along with it, keeping an even mind without any prospect of material reward can then be considered tapas. Therefore the key ingredient is sincerity without which it would be torture or calculated. Tapas follows shaucha, naturalness, and santosha, contentment, in the niyamas. Without being natural, comfortable in yourself, not artificial, and content with your lot, not craving for what you do not have, your practices could fall to a calculated or selfish approach of what you want to get from them or you become miserable and usually give them up.
Very often the word heat is associated with tapas, as that is part of its literal translation, to burn. Why was this word chosen to represent “austerity”? According to Hemachandra, tapas purifies the jiva, (the spirit), as fire purifies gold. If we observe the physical world we note that the agent of change is heat or fire. To undergo a transformation will require the application of heat. Here we find our actions, practices and attitude build a purifying heat. We can look at tapas as those practices which tend to channel prana or nervous energy inward, away from mere sense indulgence, thereby leading to a concentration of force within, which results in the building of a heat and a purification on the physical and subtle levels. The body and senses will refine and the attitude will mature. This happens as your practices direct energy away from preconditioned patterns and habits to a place of integrity within. In time you will notice a heat build inside, closer to the sacrum, behind the pubic bone going up to the navel. Your body transforms and becomes light, your senses follow your will, not the other way round, and your attitude becomes open and increasingly unselfish.
Asanas, pranayamas and sitting techniques, the most common forms of today’s yoga, are primarily tapas. And they are excellent tapas practices. The teachings also advise certain fasts or at least a discipline over food intake, a discipline over speech to a complete observance of silence, service of the Guru, sexual discipline and a full observance of truth. It has been said that pranayama is the best tapas. However, they are not to be forced or done to an extreme where they cause a physical or mental disturbance. This is unhealthy and imbalanced. Tapas is healthy just not comfort driven.
At this stage you may still ask why do this? Not because you don’t want to (I hope) but in order to understand the need for it in the first place. Yoga is not a harsh science and path forcing you to do things you don’t want to do. Patanajali is wonderfully free of dogma yet rich in common sense. Vyasa, the primary commentator on the Yoga Sutras, states that we have a beginningless mass of impressions coming from many actions and afflictions across time and form. The only way to weaken and remove the force of these impressions which rule our current life is through austerity, action and attitude. If you are honest with yourself you can see that you have much mess to clean up in your life. And if you are interested in inner self-development then it is a requirement to work on yourself. Tapas is that first instrument. You can call it “ascetic observance which should only be practiced as long as it purifies the mind and makes it pleasant without injuring health” (Vyasa paraphrased by Swami Veda Bharati).
Patanjali does not give much explanation of tapas other than its outcome where he states (YS II.43) “From tapas (ascetic practice), through the elimination of impurities there occurs mastery over the body and senses.” Thus it is clear that tapas brings the body and senses to a state of excellence. Tapas is mentioned in many other yogic texts including many of the yoga upanishads and the vashishta samhita. From all of these it is clear that tapas is the attitude which the yogis are advised to adopt towards their physiological needs, meaning to be endured and to not be appeased yet not lead to any mental or physical disturbance.
Simply put, the purification of mind, senses and body through actions and attitude that do not indulge the senses or encourage any counter-productive, pre-existing conditions, is a necessity for anyone intent on self growth and the path of yoga. This is tapas and its important place as the first instrument of doing yoga, both as a means and an end.