Tapas, the 3rd Niyama of the yoga sutras, translates as self-discipline. Most people, when they hear the word discipline, usually feel the hairs on the back of their neck stand up and resistance pops into their mind with the vision of heels digging into the sand as they were forced to do something they didn’t want to do. What most people don’t realize is the transformation that occurs through persevering a constant control of the self. Some people might interpret discipline as something that has to be challenging or physically demanding. But discipline, in yoga, doesn’t always have to be striving to sit perfectly still in meditation or struggling through blood, sweat and tears to hold a complex pose.
One easy way to bring Tapas into your life is to commit to a daily practice called Sadhana. Sadhana, daily yoga/spiritual practice, is showing up for yourself each and every day no matter what, and requires willpower and the fiery discipline of Tapas to keep up. Through the constant showing up for a daily practice you can learn the ebb and flow of your mind, the rhythm of your cycles, and tune into what you absolutely need for greater health and well-being in the moment. Through discipline we gain mastery over the mind and ego and become witness to the tales of the subconscious that work to resist change. Discipline offers richness through the gifts of focus, clarity, energy, and connection. It is here we receive glimpses of the nature of our soul and the truth of who we are can be exposed.
The root word of Tapas is Tap which means to burn. This implies how working with this observance we can remove or burn away impediments that hold us back from experiencing the true meaning of the word yoga (union) and seeing clearly the essence of our true self. We can think of Tapas as a fiery enthusiasm or attitude towards life that helps to keep the inner fire stoked and the momentum going towards anything we put our mind to. Without discipline or Sadhana our internal fire can diminish like any fire left unattended and when this happens it can take a lot more effort to fire it back up again.
“The most difficult thing in human life is the test of one's own discipline. If you are not your own disciple and your own discipline is not stronger than you, you have hardly any chance to be happy. All pain in this world comes to those who have no self-superior discipline. And it is not somebody's discipline being imposed on you. That is not the discipline. Discipline is your own discipline for your self, and your conscious discipline."
–Yogi Bhajan, April 5, 1994
Once you establish a firm discipline towards your Sadhana you will gain the wisdom to know what you need for maintaining balance in your health, your relationships, your work, and your life. It is true that there will be times when life deals moments of hardship and darkness and like the forest that needs to experience the heat of the fire to create something new, so do we need to experience the heat of Tapas (transformation) to reveal the light of our being. Tapasallows us to direct our energy toward a fulfilled life of meaning and one that is exciting and pleasurable.