Tapas, from purification to Perfection
Like most Sanskrit words, tapas (तपस्) is difficult to render into one concise English term without losing much of its meaning (explicit and implied). Popular translations include “asceticism”, “austerity”, “penance”, “mortification”, and “self-discipline”. If you consult a Sanskrit dictionary, you might find definitions such as “suffering”, and “pain”. The verb tapas means “to heat”, “to burn”, “to glow”, “to shine”. Our preference is “purification” because in the context of yoga, the purpose of tapas, of performing the austerities, of generating the heat is to burn off impurities, akin to removing the dross from silver; resulting in an unalloyed body, mind, and heart that is radiant, clear, and still.
Practically speaking, within the Indian context, tapas can be strikingly severe – fasting, surviving on a diet of neem-leaves, renouncing material wealth, comfort and even clothes, walking barefoot is mild compared to practices that push the physical body to its limits (and sometimes irretrievably beyond) such as sitting under a hot sun, surrounded by blazing fires in the four directions, meditating naked in snow, reciting scriptures while submerged in an icy lake, standing on one leg for years, keeping one arm up in the air for years, walking on fire, extreme body piercing, sleeping on a bed of nails, walking miles with sandals made of nails, or the penile penances undertaken to “transcend” sexuality – lifting weights up to 60 pounds or more tied to the penis; wrapping the penis around a stick and twisting it tightly – all designed to deliver them from erections!
Such severity and extremism is sometimes counterproductive; instead of purifying the body and mind, it pulverizes it. A broken body is also not fit for yoga. Although, tapas sounds like torture, it is not supposed to be. Rather, it is overcoming the body and mind’s inertia; such attempts will undoubtedly be met with resistance. In countering this resistance, you inevitably create friction, as it requires a certain degree of oppositional force, which will likely result in discomfort.
What exactly does tapas entail? It depends on the individual. For an obese person, tapas would be overcoming the urge to eat the 10th candy bar (especially if he feels like death would be imminent if he didn’t consume said candy bar), or to replace candy bars with sticks of raw celery. For a meat eater, it could be giving up meat. For the slothful, it could be walking 5 miles a day. For the habitual sloucher, it could be forcing the body to stand and sit straight. For the unhealthy, tapas is any activity that restores the body and mind to a state of balance, and healthy functioning, such as a gentle restorative yoga āsana class. For the already healthy, it encompasses activities that expand the body’s strength and vigor, such as a more demanding and challenging yoga āsana practice. For those of robust health, it means tapping into the body’s seemingly infinite power and potential.
In traditional yoga, observing the yamas (यम) and niyamas (नियम) in thought, speech and action is tapas. Take ahimsā (अहिंसा) for instance – do not entertain any negative or harmful thoughts; consciously replacing thoughts of worry, hatred and jealousy with loving thoughts is mental tapas. Curbing ones’ tongue – substituting harsh words with kind words, is verbal tapas. Choosing not to hurt any other living being by embracing a vegetarian diet instead of a more violent variety is physical tapas.
Other types of tapas include focusing on a mantra unceasingly, mantra japa, meditation, performing selfless service for those who have no way of repaying you. Patañjali proffers prāṇāyāma as a potent practice of tapas in the Yoga Sūtra.
Remember: one person’s tapas maybe be another’s torture or titillation.
To help you determine what is tapas for you, always recall the fruit of tapas. Any method that produces the desired result may be correctly considered tapas, and any technique that does not, even though it may be mentioned in the classical yoga texts, is not tapas for you.
Through tapas, impurities are burnt and the body, and senses rise to perfection.
– Yoga Sūtra 2.43