Our effort begins by turning up the heat!
Our journey to becoming powerfully loving beings, our path to manifesting ourselves as true representations of the Creator of life, in the yoga tradition, happens when we cultivate three practices—tapas, svadhyaya, and Ishvara pranidhana.
Each of these practices is a stepping stone to experiencing ourselves as God’s beloved children. Each moves us closer and closer to the type of person we long to be, to the union we desire with our Beloved God and to the type of person that is so very much needed in our world today, especially in the midst of so much hatred, division, suffering and uncertainty.
These last three niyamas (observances) in the second limb of yoga are simply defined as “self-discipline, self-study, and focus on the Supreme Goal.” Let’s take some time and unpack each one. This will help us develop the awareness of the practice (abhyasa) that will detach (vairagya) us from the bondage of our pain-producing patterns (samskaras). Remember, these habits become so subtle and sneaky and unconscious that they (vasanas) color the way we live.
First, tapas. It is often translated as “self-discipline,” but the direct translation is “heat.” When we do something that “heats us up” or that creates a bit of internal “sweat” in our mind and heart, we are experiencing tapas. When that happens, the yogis say, we develop self-discipline; we become stronger in our decision-making ability; we begin to respond to our core self, our Spirit. An example might help in understanding how this inner tension creates self-discipline.
Let’s say that we truly love to eat peanut M&Ms or Doritos, in particular, the Cool Ranch flavor. If we were to place a bowl of M&Ms or Cool Ranch Doritos on the kitchen table for us to eat, the practice of tapas would be for us to approach these most delicious and tempting and mouth-watering treats and say to ourselves: “I am going to have one of these M&Ms or Doritos,” as we bring our hand closer to the treat, … “later.” And then we walk away. Later, when we return to the kitchen, as we are going about our daily activities, we see the bowl of wonderful-smelling, super mouth-watering delicacies on the table and we again approach the bowl, reaching out to get an M&M or chip, saying: “I am going to have one of these,” our hand almost touching the sweetness or saltiness, … “later.” Again we pull back our hand and walk away. This continues on throughout the entire day, each time building up intense memories of our favorite snack and each time, with more and more difficulty, with more and more internal struggle we pull our hand back from grabbing the wonderful morsel of pleasure.
This is tapas! This intense desire to have a treat burns in our mouth and our mind and possibly even touches deep into our stomach, especially if we haven’t eaten much all day long. But we keep approaching the source of what we believe to be our joy and then pull back. This is practicing tapas, especially the time we approach the bowl just before supper and say to ourselves: “I am going to have one of these M&Ms or Doritos,” and we just take one, putting all the others away. We follow our words completely.
That is developing self-discipline, the fruit of a tapas practice.
The Yoga Tradition says that when we practice tapas every day, especially on the yoga mat (often called the tapas mat), we build the internal fire and heat needed to develop will power, a very important samaskara for a world that does not demonstrate it much at all.
Happy tapas practice!