Special Series on the Yamas and Niyamas: Tapas: Namaste Yoga 40

by Melissa West on June 29, 2010


During episode 40 of namaste yoga we continue our series on the yamas and niyamas with the third niyama or personal practice, tapas. The root of tapas, tap means to heat and so this asana practice is about creating heat to cause positive change. This is a vigorous class that involves both kundalini and hatha yoga. Kundalini kriyas are used to give us the power to maintain a course of action and the ability to break habits and create new ones. This class requires austerity and zealous commitment to staying with a challenging and sometimes uncomfortable practice while always honouring the well-being of our bodies.

Special Series on the Yamas and Niyamas: Tapas

This past week in yoga we have been working with tapas, which has to do with disciplined practice to cause change. It seems like tapas comes as naturally to me as swimming does to a fish in water. I remember from a very early age getting up at 6:30 a.m. practicing scales on my piano for an hour before I went to school. (My parents bought me a piano with a felt damper for those early morning practices!) I notice discipline is still a big part of my personality and lifestyle. I still get up at 6:00 a.m. to sit for 30 minutes of meditation followed by an hour of yoga. I am presently taking a course which has assignments and I diligently hand each one in on the due date. Currently I’m practicing discipline with food in my spring cleanse which is restricted to no animal products (not much difference there for me), no wheat, sugar, alcohol or processed foods.

Sometimes certain niyamas (personal practices) come more easily and sometimes we  have to work harder to cultivate them. The practice of tapas involves disciplined action to cause positive change. The result of practicing tapas helps to weaken suffering and puts us more in touch with our inner light of awareness. For example, if one were to practice a tapas such as abstaining from substances like alcohol and sugar, the body would ultimately become cleaner and able to function more efficiently.

The word tapas means to heat and tapas often has to do with generating the transformative power of fire to create change. Back in the days of the vedas (2nd and 1st millenia BCE) yogis would practice tapas by sitting and meditating by a fire during the mid-day sun. Today, a common form of tapas involves vigorous yoga to create heat and change in the body.

The idea behind tapas is that the heat generated by practicing tapas will burn off physical, mental and emotional impurities  leaving the physical, mental, emotional, and spirit bodies clean and clear.

Nicholai Bachman suggests that when we consciously change a habit, discomfort arises and creates heat in the body. For example, on the first couple of days of my cleanse I felt waves of heat in my body. This heat is the heat of tapas. (My disciplined practice of giving up certain foods to cleanse the body, created heat in my body.) During my cleanse I have experienced the discomfort from headaches, to fatigue and body-aches. All this indicates “the pricessless heat of real change,” according to Nicholai Bachman. He points out that discomfort is good for us! When we meet with uneasiness we can be happy about it because we know we are going through change and transformation. This discomfort can fuel our efforts to continue practicing our tapas to cause positive change.

Nischala Joy Devi talks about how everyday normal life experiences are an opportunity to practice tapas. She suggests that we embrace all of life’s experiences as a means of purification whether pleasant or unpleasant. She explains that the supreme purpose of tapas is to accept life’s challenges while being loving and compassionate to all, especially ourselves. This means even serving our children in getting them ready for bed and asking them to brush their teeth for the hundredth time is an opportunity to act in service and reverence for ourselves and our young child. Nischala Joy Devi encourages us to incorporate our practices into our lives, rather than keep them ceremonially separate. She translates the sutra on tapas as: “Living with zeal and sincerity, the purifying flame is ignited (tapas) revealing the inner light.”

Tapas are all about our austerity and zealous commitment. (Chip Hartranft). When we charge our actions with zeal and sincerity we transform them into a spiritual practice and ignite the spark of divinity within our heart (Nischala Joy Devi). To effect change requires a great deal of energy which is generated by the heat of intense discipline. In what ways are you practicing tapas right now? What disciplined actions are part of your day to day activities? Reflect on how it is through discipline that we can achieve freedom.

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