Tapas – Part 3 of a 10-part invitation to inquiry.  These offerings on the yamas and niyamas are not intended as teachings but as an encouragement to reflect on and ideally share your own perspective.  Recognising that we each have something to offer and something to learn and that collectively we deepen our inquiries.

Tapas – heat, discipline, intense discipline, austerities (yama – Patanjali II.32 and II.43)

Although literally ‘heat’, Tapas is most frequently translated as ‘discipline’, ‘intense discipline’ or even ‘austerities’. 

I’m not sure whether it’s my personal history or our shared cultural context, but I’ve begun to wonder whether such translations are entirely useful.  It seems to me that translating Tapas as ‘enthusiasm’ or even ‘vibrant intention’ might be more helpful.  Doing so seems resonant with a similar concept that appears in Buddhism which is most commonly translated as ‘right effort’.

Here’s why I’ve come to this conclusion, and what I mean by enthusiasm, vibrant intention and right effort.

Culturally, it has been deeply instilled in me that ‘no pain, no gain’ is a general truth, that the harder I work, the greater the rewards, that doing little is ‘lazy’, that ‘resting’ is weak, that what (and how much) I do defines me.  The idea of Tapas as ‘intense discipline’ or even ‘austerities’ seems an easy fit to this perspective.  However, in many other parts of Patanjali’s Sutras we are invited to see the overall goal of yoga as the letting go of strong habit patterns and the unfolding of choice and freedom as a result (see I.12-16 as an example).  The image of Tapas as the commitment to walk through fire in order to be purged, seems at odds with this vision of ease and freedom.

A spectrum of effort

Yet some discipline is required in order to practice at all.  Furthermore, it seems likely that a complete ‘go with the flow’ attitude whether on the mat or in our wider inquiries may simply perpetuate or even reinforce existing patterns and habits.  For example, if back bending is challenging to me and I avoid it wherever possible, I simply reinforce my forward bending attraction / ability and solidify my back bending aversion / inability.  Nothing changes other than my patterns get more entrenched.

The idea of Tapas as ‘right effort’ or ‘enthusiasm’ seems to offer a middle way between the extremes of obsessive action and drifting or half hearted effort.  Right effort in this context might be seen as “enthusiastic engagement, with a sense of clear intention and an objective review of outcomes”.

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that ‘right effort’ is “nourished by joy and interest’, and lies between the extremes of austerity and sensual indulgence.  In the context of practice and indeed life in general, he suggests that joy and ease should also be part of how we gauge ‘success’.   If they are not arising he encourages students to consider whether they need to adjust their efforts.

Tapas in the context of asana therefore, might be seen as enthusiastic engagement without grasping or aversion, but with a clear sense of intention in our practice.  Walking the path between obsessive practice and failing to turn up.  Perhaps also practicing with the aim of living well rather than living with the aim of practicing well (a vibrant intention)!

Markers of success

As Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, we can gauge our success at least in part by the development of joy and ease.  This does not imply limp and lazy however.  Joy and ease can apply to the somersaulting trampolinist, the fiery strength of ujjayi breathing and the wild liberation of a flat out sprint or an uninhibited dance.  As well as the ‘’ahh” sensation of savasana.  Right effort does not mean no effort – it implies ‘optimum effort’, the channelling and wholehearted commitment of what is needed at any moment, and no more.  It generates grace in both action and inaction.

In my own practice and indeed life, I have recognised a personal pattern in relation to this spectrum of effort which involves a kind of trial and error search for right effort.  Recognising that I’m trying too hard, I do less, overshoot, realise I’m doing too little, ramp it up, overdo it, correct again and so on….generally getting closer to the illusive ‘optimum’, to grace.

Perhaps such grace is what is meant by the ‘mastery of the body and sense organs’ in II.43.  If so, Tapas seeks to eliminate wasted effort in the form of muscles, thoughts, fears, desires, – all of which might be considered patterns of the body-mind with the potential to hinder or obstruct an inherent state of grace.

We may literally sweat out our toxins or watch our tissues become firm and lithe, our joints strong and fluid.  The psycho-emotional toxins are less easy to see dripping onto our yoga mat but they are certainly as important as any physical impurities.  Fear, self-doubt, arrogance, rigid views etc.  All can act as obstacles to joy and ease.  Tapas in the form of commitment, enthusiasm and perhaps most importantly curious acceptance, is key to excavating these deep roots of self limitation.  Perhaps with considerable support from ahimsa (non-harming), santosha (contentment) and satya (truthfulness).

Tapas on and off the yoga mat

All this leads to my proposal of Tapas as ‘enthusiasm’ with ‘vibrant intention’.  This avoids the rigidity and exclusion towards which I feel drawn when using the terms ‘austerity’ and ‘intense discipline’.  Furthermore, my gauge of ‘the superb refinement of the body and senses’ (II.43) is wider than a graceful down dog, headstand or any other asana.  I acknowledge that this a function of my Tapas intention and yours might be very different. For me though the best evidence that Tapas / Right Effort is achieving its purpose is the prevalence of joy, ease and grace in my experience of work, leisure, relationships, bad drivers, ‘inconsiderate’ weather, etc.  As always, some areas of practice are more successful than others!