Tapas: The Fire Within

Make a change.
Feel the heat of resistance
melt away old habits
and burn through ruinous conditioning.
Offer negative behavior
into the fire of tapas
and chart your course toward freedom.
-- Nicolai Bachman

The Yoga Sutras, an ancient text many refer to as the primary written source for the practice of yoga, contains 196 aphorisms about yogic philosophy. Within the Sutras, the niyamas are found. The niyamas can be understood as guidelines for self-care. They describe changes we should seek to implement in our lives for self-improvement and contentment. One of the niyamas is tapas.

The personal practice of tapas is often associated with fire and heat, since the Sanskrit root of the word, tap, means “to heat.” Nicolai Bachman, in The Path of the Yoga Sutras, writes, “the heat generated by practicing tapas will incinerate physical, mental, and emotional impurities, and refine the body, sensory organs and heart-mind” (190). But why heat? Why the association with fire to find purity? Couldn’t the cleansing analogy made with water or soap or something seemingly more benign – and safer - than fire?

These questions highlight why I prefer the translation of tapas as self-discipline. Discipline isn’t a very fun idea. While it can create positive results in our lives, it not usually a very pleasant way to achieve them. It takes discipline to train for a marathon. It takes discipline to stick to a diet. It takes discipline to raise a well-behaved child. It takes discipline to follow the yoga lifestyle. Sometimes we have to “turn up the heat” figuratively to push ourselves to change for the better.

The application of heat can cause change in the form of purification. To make gold or silver more pure, it must be heated so the dross (impurities) can be separated and removed from the precious metal.  In the same way “heat,” in the form of affliction or discipline, often has to be applied to our lives in order to burn out that which is making us less refined. Change results when the intensity of the refiner's fire is applied precisely and skillfully; it separates us from our impurities. The impurities that sabotage our self-contentment can be bad habits, harmful relationships, and other choices that drag us down rather than help build us up.  When we finally tap into the discipline needed to break away from these afflictions, we can enjoy new freedom as a result of our time in the fire. And that’s where contentment can be cultivated – in knowing the flames worked us towards a higher purpose. Consequently, we can reflect on discipline not as punishment, but as heat that helps make us more of who were are truly called to be.

The next time the flames of tapas burn hot around you – will you just feel burned – or will you be changed?