TAPAS...self discipline...it doesn't mean torture.
Over the years of practising, and more recently, teaching yoga the one thing that I notice is the change that I see subjectively in myself, and objectively in those around me over time. What stands out is that those who show more commitment to the practice appear to become progressively calmer, or more content somehow, sturdier, more steadfast than those who practise occasionally when they "feel like it". Self-discipline is like a snowball. It gathers momentum and strength and propels us along off it's own steam. The most difficult part is starting. In myself I notice that when I sacrifice what I "want" and replace it with unwavering attention to practice, my response to the world around me changes for the better. In terms of Yoga, tapas is the third of the niyamas, or active observances, one of the 8 limbs of yoga according to Patanjali's sutras. Tapas is translated as self discipline, effort or internal fire. In life, tapas is the willingness to do the work, to develop healthy priorities, to bring enthusiasm and discipline into the structure of our lives. Sutra II:41... "sattva-śudhhi-saumanasyaikāgryendriya-jayātma-darśana-yogyatvāni ca"...which according to a translation by Edwin Bryant (2009) means "Upon the purification of the mind, [one attains] cheerfulness, one-pointedness, sense control, and fitness to perceive the self". The internal fire of tapas burns away the impurities, both physical and mental, which are impediments to yoga... to cultivating sattva guna, or a balanced, peaceful, harmonious mind and body. On the physical level, tapas is the internal heat generated by Ujjayi (deep focused) breathing. This in turn stimulates the metabolism which strengthens the digestive system and detoxifies the blood. Drinking cold water generally, or any water during asana practice is counter to this effect.
"practice becomes firmly established when it has been cultivated uninteruptedly and with devotion over a prolonged period of time"
On the emotional/mental level, tapas is the internal heat generated by self discipline in practice. This heat burns up the obstacles (kleśas) or impediments to the ultimate goal of yoga...self-realisation. These impediments are ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion and clinging to life. Bryant's translation of sutra I:14 states "practice becomes firmly established when it has been cultivated uninteruptedly and with devotion over a prolonged period of time". He quotes an older commentary on this sutra, namely that of Vācaspati Miśra who acknowledges that the calm and tranquil state of the mind is often overcome by distraction, extremes of emotion, laziness and ignorance, "but if one maintains one's practice then eventually the mind becomes steadfast and concentrated". He analogises the practice of yoga with the citta, or mind, being represented by a garden: sattva as a beautiful bed of flowers, and the disturbances (rajas and tamas) as weeds and pests. Occasional weeding and tending the garden is rarely enough to keep it healthy. Constant self disciplined practice is required.
Being a bit of a science nerd, I get really excited when ancient practices are backed up by western science. Not that I need convincing, because the proof is in the pudding, but for yoga to be accepted in the mainstream, particularly as a therapeutic modality, there just has to be scientific back-up. These are exciting times. Recent studies published in various journals have shown various yogic practices to be beneficial in a myriad of ways, but that's another blog. As far as the subject of tapas is concerned, the outcome of a study performed by Hoffman et al was published in the Journal of Personality (J Pers. 2014 Aug;82(4):265-77 Epub 2013 Aug 8.). It showed that self-control and self-discipline were directly proportional to levels of subjective "happiness" in the lives of the subjects. It's no coincidence then that the 4th niyama is "santosha" which translates as "contentment"!
Observe the analogy of the citta, or mind, being represented by a garden: sattva as a beautiful bed of flowers, and the disturbances (rajas and tamas) as weeds and pests.
Having laid the groundwork for a healthy yoga practice, it is worth mentioning that too much self discipline...to the point of extreme self sacrifice and neglect of other important aspects of our life may be just as negative as no self-discipline at all. What we need to find is a healthy balance. If you are a beginning practitioner, I would suggest taking small bite sized chunks and allowing the momentum of self disciplined practice propel you along at a pace that suits you. One man's tapas can be another's torture. We are all guilty (me included) of pulling the blankets up higher in the morning and sleeping in...especially on these cold mornings. We all find ourselves overindulging and under indulging on a daily basis. Just balancing this with a disciplined routine, regardless of what we feel like doing, can go a long way in bringing positive change to our lives. What form this practice takes is a personal choice, it doesn't matter as long as it is done with devotion, perseverance and a sense of self-care and joy. It is generally easier to practise regularly when we have the support and encouragement of a community of like minded companions. Joining a yoga, tai chi (etc.) or meditation class is worthwhile. These days, a yoga class that suits us is never far away. Bryant, E., 2009, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: a new Edition, Translation and Commentary, North Point Press. Hoffmann, W. et al, Yes, but are they happy? Effects of trait self-control on affective well-being and life satisfaction, The Journal of Personality, Online http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23750741