Learn how to build your internal heat and bring discipline to your yoga practice without getting burnt along the way with this niyama, tapas.
Tapas (not to be confused with delicious Spanish nibbles) is like fire. Derived from the Sanskrit word ‘tap’ which means ‘to burn’, Ashtanga teacher Melanie Cooper calls it the ‘fire of transformation’, and it’s easy to see why. By practicing yoga āsana regularly, our physical body begins to get stronger, more flexible, and we start to feel more spacious and open. It’s not just our physical bodies that begin to change, but the way we think and feel can begin to change too.
The experience of the second niyama is essential to our yoga practice – without tapas transformation simply cannot take place. How do we create more fire in our practice, and make sure we don’t get burnt along the way? Let’s explore.
Using Tapas On The Mat
Practices like Vinyasa flow or Ashtanga can be very heated practices. As we move quickly through the postures, engaging our breath and our bandhas (energy locks, more on these below), we quickly warm the body. Bikram yoga takes it to the next level, with studios heated to around 40C. However tapas is more than just getting your sweat on, it’s also about bringing a certain level of discipline to your mat. Try these three tips to bring more tapas to your mat:
For those of you who have read my other articles on the yamas and niyamas, this may come as a bit of a shock. When discussing attitudes like kindness (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya) and contentment (aparigraha), I have generally advocated finding the softness to your practice, bringing a sense of ‘listening’ to your body and honouring its messages. So let me clarify things here. To me, practising hard means maintaining a consistent practice. Think frequency: the more yoga you do, the more your practice will develop. If you wake up and have an urge to do yin yoga, then do yin yoga. The point is, get on your mat.
This consistent practice is where transformation will take place, but don’t be fooled by exotic photos and videos of yoga on paddleboards: this is hard work, and will take discipline. The chances are, though, that the reward will be immensely beneficial. Basically, you get out what you put in.
As well as having a regular practice, and knowing where to be gentle with yourself, it’s also important to know when to challenge yourself, and to find ‘the edge’ of your abilities. This won’t be every time you roll out your mat but it will need to happen to allow tapas to take place. For me, finding a good teacher has been essential in understanding just how far I can push myself without injuring myself. If you’re not sure how far to push it, speak to an experienced teacher. Remember yoga should never cause you pain – discomfort, sometimes, but pain, never.
Use Your Bandhas
Bandha is translates from Sanskrit as ‘to lock, or bind’. Engaging our bandhas can help to lock the heat we are creating within the body, where it can help us burn through toxins and create space and freedom in the body and mind.
One of the bandhas is the uddiyāna bandha, centred in your abdomen. At it’s simplest, you can engage the uddiyāna bandha by pulling the belly button in towards the spine at various points of inhalation and exhalation during posture work. This is a more advanced practice, and as such I highly recommend the guidance of an experienced teacher to truly understand the bandhas. It’s worth the effort though, since when you begin to get your head around the bandhas they can really keep your fire burning, and change the way you experience the postures.
Taking Tapas Off The Mat
Although the majority of yoga classes, and indeed yoga teacher training programmes, are āsana focused, with time you may begin to explore other limbs of yoga, like prānāyāma (breathwork) and meditation. You may even find yourself taking yoga into your everyday life by practising these yamas and niyamas! Let’s look in more detail at taking tapas off the mat.
Let Yourself Be Guided
Instinct, soul, inner voice — whatever you call it — we all have a sense of what steps we need to take to live a fuller life. Sometimes we get lost along the way, or ignore our instincts which is usually to our own peril. One way to engage more with this voice is to give yourself space. Yoga helps to create space in the body and mind, but for me, getting out to the countryside, mountains or beach really brings me back to my True Self.
It is here I can see, think and feel with more clarity. If you live (like me) in a city, why not try getting closer to nature more often? The UK is fortunate to have some beautiful parks in our cities, so simply taking a walk in the park can be a great way to connect back to yourself and make decision which will help you on your spiritual journey.
Winners Stick With Winners
In his Yoga Sūtras, Patañjali gives us the following advice:
By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.
~ Chapter 1, Verse 33
If you spend your time with people who aren’t supporting you on your journey, it may be time to rethink those relationships. This isn’t always easy. Sometimes people may discourage you unintentionally, or even with good intentions at heart. If you are in touch with your inner voice then (kindly) ignoring them may be the easier thing to do. A destructive friend may be easier to cut off completely.
To allow transformation to take place, space is required – out with the old, in with the new as the saying goes. Remember that this is fire we are dealing with, and we can get burnt. Take your time, seek advice and support, and don’t lose faith in yourself. At times like these, your yoga practice will be more important than ever. As someone who has gone through (and is still going through) this transformation, I know it can be hard. I also know that it is completely the right thing to do. Have courage.
Let It Out
As Isak Dineson, a Danish writer, once said, “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.” You might have not the sea close to hand, but we can all experience tears and sweat, anger and joy, and a vast range of emotions in-between. Whatever it is, just let it out.
Too often we suppress our true emotions for fear of being vulnerable, exposed. We don’t want others to judge us, or we may judge ourselves too harshly. Going through tapas will mean all those suppressed emotions, feelings and thoughts will be burnt away. Fire needs air, so whatever it is you’re holding back, get it out there! You may wait to choose an environment that feels safe (like a yoga studio, or your bedroom) or it may come out unexpectedly when walking down the street or in the queue at the supermarket.
Although the latter may be a cringe-worthy thought, trust me when I say it really doesn’t matter. Whatever initial embarrassment, worry or shame you may feel will pass as you fully come to accept your feelings and then let them go.
Taking Tapas From Here
As I hope you can now see, tapas is meaty stuff. (Pardon the pun — I just had to.) Don’t worry if you feel overwhelmed or even a bit scared by this niyama, tapas only comes to you when you’re ready. You may not consciously realise when the time has come, but you will be. If you are keen to seek it out, try beginning with on the mat. Understanding how to challenge yourself safely can deepen your āsana practice and bring about the first flickers of the fire of transformation. Tempted? I’d love hear how you get on.