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Tapas--the Spiritual Journey’s First Step

By Michael Ketterhagen

“The literal meaning of tapas is [not austerity, but] ‘heat, radiant fire’…. Practice that fills us with vitality and with the enthusiasm and courage to discover the unknown spheres of life is tapas.”

-Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, commenting on Yoga Sutra 2.1


[which is not admitting that there is a spiritual dimension to life],

exists, even if someone does not have faith [or believe in God],

when people disobey their conscience.

-Pope Francis

Tapas--the Spiritual Journey’s First Step

In my last writing, I mentioned that tapas (austerity), svadhyaya (self-study), and Ishvara pranidhana (surrender to God) were yoga practices that lead to powerful progress on one’s spiritual journey. Tapas, in particular, is usually the beginning step for those who practice yoga (wholeness, oneness).

Even if someone practices the yoga postures (asanas) to increase their flexibility, strength, and balance, gradually that yogi(ni) will sense that there is something enlightening about the practice. Even if someone attributes that energizing experience to the “exercising and stretching” of their muscles, when they end the posture practice and enter into the relaxation phase of the hatha class, they often “feel” that they are more than just a body. The mind is also beginning to still and their awareness seems to go beyond their physical and mental dimensions.

The “life force” dimension begins to present itself at those quiet times. The “exerciser-just-before” becomes aware of the inner promptings. The spiritual dimension of themselves comes to the practitioner’s awareness. That part of the yogi(ni) that sustains their life gradually takes over.

The Yoga Tradition and Christianity calls this inner, spiritual coordinator of our life our buddhi or conscience, respectively.

So what does tapas (austerity) have to do with our conscience? Another way to look at tapas/austerity is doing something that demands will power. When we hear our inner voice (our buddhi/conscience) tell us something, there are many times when we just ignore its suggestion and do what we desire to do. We choose our ego’s wish. An example might be when we hear our inner voice say, “Don’t do that now!” or “Maybe you should get your loved one’s opinion before you do that!” we might ignore that and act anyway. Later, we find out that our decision to ignore the inner prompting was a mistake. We, in effect, have not listened to our conscience/buddhi. Or as Pope Francis might say, “We have sinned against ourselves or our loved one.”

Following one’s conscience is a demanding experience at times and takes much self-discipline.

I experience that often now that my cancer is again beginning to grow in my blood stream. I am very desirous of eating the sweets that Mary makes even though my inner voice says, “You know you need to stay clear of sugar.” It takes much will power, much tapas, to do what the voice of God within is suggesting.

This is tapas, the first step on our consciously chosen spiritual journey. Listening constantly to the voice of the Divine within ourselves and that Divine Source’s loving suggestions takes will power. When we do, the awareness of the Divine in our lives grows. Our will power grows. We advance on our spiritual journey, our journey to peace and joy. I know this through experience, as it is easier and easier to say “No” to all that might harm me and my spiritual journey to wholeness.

It will work for you as well!

I pray to the divinity in you!

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