Updated: Dec 19, 2018
In Sanskrit, the root word "tap" simply means "to heat; to blaze; to burn". When discussing Tapas in the context of the Yoga Sutras, this word takes on a more complex meaning.
Tapas in The Yoga Sutras
The concept of Tapas is described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It is listed as one of the five Niyamas (observances), which, along with the five Yamas (restraints), create a comprehensive moral and ethical code, which acts as the foundation for a meaningful spiritual practice. Yama and Niyama are described as the first two branches in the Eight-Limbed Path, which Patanjali explains, is one method that may be used to achieve spiritual enlightenment.
In the Yoga Sutras, Tapas is listed as the third of five guidelines of individual discipline (Niyamas). In this context, Tapas is understood as a burning desire for union with divinity, expressed through self-discipline, purification, willpower, austerity, patience. Tapas is the decision to devote endless effort to achieving an unwavering goal, regardless of the roadblocks or distractions that may stand in the way of that goal. Tapas is the choice to burn through those distractions, no matter how painful the process may be, because the reward is so pure, so divine, that it is worth any amount of effort to achieve.
Feel the Burn
The word Tapas is derived from the root word "tap" which means "to burn". The act of burning is as painful as it is purifying, thus pain helps purify. Sutra 2.43 presents this idea, explaining that through fiery self-discipline, austerity, suffering, and difficult action, we work to burn away impurities that we hold within ourselves. We must accept a certain amount of suffering in order to make ourselves pure and worthy of union with the divine.
There are three ways of working with Tapas: in the body (kayika), in speech (vachika), and in the mind (manasika).
An example of physical Tapas is fasting, where lack of a steady nutrition supply causes the body to burn away excess fat and toxins. Another example, with similar results, is vigorous exercise. Physical Tapas may also be practiced through reasonable Brahmacharya, or continence.
Verbal Tapas may be accessed through controlling one's speech. Observing silence, being careful with words, not speaking ill or gossiping about others, and speaking the truth with no regard to the consequences are all examples of verbal Tapas in practice.
The ability to remain tranquil, stable, and steady in the face of both joy and sorrow is an example of mental Tapas.
In the real-world setting, the idea of Tapas helps us to accept difficult, painful situations, allowing us to find peace within the suffering. True strength comes from accepting pain.
Relevant Sutras for Self-Study
2.28: The overall benefit of practicing the Eight-Limbed Path is discussed.
2.29: The Eight Limbs of Yoga are listed, Niyama is mentioned.
2.32: Niyama is explained, Tapas is mentioned.
2.43: The concept of Tapas is discussed.