Heating Up Your Yoga Practice: Understanding Tapas
Westerners often think of Patanjali as the Father of Yoga, but this title rightly belongs to the solar spirit. Reiterating ancient Vedic teachings, the Bhagavad Gita (4.1) refers to the solar spirit, called Vivasvat, as the primordial teacher of ancient yoga. And since tapas is at the heart of all yogic disciplines, the solar spirit (not to be confused with the physical star we call the sun) was the first teacher of tapas.
Indeed, before the word yoga was used to mean spiritual discipline, the term tapas was used to express that same idea. Over time, however, tapas has acquired the connotation of asceticism or austerity. But its literal meaning, significantly, is heat or glow. Through tapas, the solar spirit shines brightly through its physical body, which is our sun. Also through tapas, spiritual practitioners radiate the energy of wisdom and kindness.
Before the word yoga was used to mean spiritual discipline, the term tapas was used to express that same idea.
Tapas is any practice that pushes the mind against its own limits; the key ingredient of tapas is endurance. Thus in the ancient Rig Veda (10.136), “the long-haired ascetic (keshin) is said to endure the world, to endure fire, and to endure poison.” The keshin is a type of renouncer, a forerunner of the later yogin. He is a “wind-girt (naked) companion of the wild God Rudra (Howler),” said to ascend the wind in a God-intoxicated state and to fly through space, gazing down upon all things. But the name keshin harbors an even deeper meaning as well, for it can also refer to the sun, whose “long hair is made up of the countless rays that emanate from the solar orb, reach far into the cosmos, and bestow life on Earth.” This is a reminder that the archaic yoga of the Vedas revolved around the solar spirit, who selflessly feeds all beings with his/her/its compassionate warmth.
The early name for the yogin is tapasvin, the practitioner of tapas, or voluntary self-challenge as a means to spiritual growth. Tapasvins always deliberately challenge body and mind, applying formidable willpower to whatever practice they vow to undertake. They may choose to stand stock-still under India’s hot sun for hours on end, surrounded by a wall of heat from four fires lit close by. Or they may resolve to sit naked in solitary meditation on a wind-swept mountain peak in below-zero temperatures. Or they might opt to reduce their food intake to a bare minimum, or to fast for long periods of time. Or they may opt to incessantly chant a divine name, forfeiting sleep for a specified number of days. The possibilities for tapas are endless.
Tapas begins with temporarily or permanently denying ourselves a particular desire—having a satisfying cup of coffee, a piece of chocolate, or casual sex. Instead of instant gratification, we choose postponement. Then, gradually, postponement can be stepped up to become complete renunciation. This kind of challenge to our habit patterns causes a certain degree of frustration in us. We begin to “stew in our own juices,” and this generates psychic energy that can be used to power the process of self-transformation.
So frustration need not be a negative experience. It is bound to feel that way so long as we are blindly attached to the object of whatever desire remains unfulfilled. But if we are able to understand how the mind functions and see the value in going beyond attachment, we can derive great spiritual benefit even from frustration. And as we become increasingly able to gain control over our impulses, we experience the delight that underlies creative self-frustration. We see that we are growing and that self-denial need not necessarily be unrewarding.
The Bhagavad Gita (17.14–16) speaks of three kinds of tapas: austerity of body, speech, and mind. Austerity of the body includes purity, rectitude, chastity, non-harming, and making offerings to higher beings, sages, brahmins (the custodians of Hindu India’s spiritual heritage), and honored teachers. Austerity of speech encompasses speaking kind, truthful, and beneficial words that give no offense, as well as regular recitation of the sacred lore. Austerity of the mind consists of serenity, gentleness, silence, self-restraint, and pure emotions. According to the Bhagavad Gita (17.17), a rounded or integral spiritual practice entails all three kinds of tapas, practiced with great faith and without expectation of reward.
Sattva, rajas, and tamas are the three primary constituents of nature (gunas), and all created things, including the human psyche, or mind, are a composite of them. Since tapas depends on the mind of the yoga practitioner, it is colored by these three as they manifest in a particular individual. And depending on the quality of tapas, practitioners will harvest corresponding results.
The kind of austerity that has a predominance of the quality of rajas, the principle of dynamism in nature, tends to be practiced with an ulterior motive, such as gaining respect, honor, or reverence, or for the sake of selfish display. It tends to be unstable and of short duration. When the quality of tamas, standing for the principle of inertia, characterizes the practice of austerity, it leads
to foolish self-torture or injury to others. So unless the practice of austerity has a strong ingredient of sattva, which stands for the principles of lucidity in the inner and outer worlds, the results can range from physical pain and anguish to a complete failure of the spiritual process.
For instance, those who practice tapas in order to acquire paranormal abilities (siddhis) that will impress or overpower others consolidate rather than transcend the ego and thus become diverted from the path. Again, those who confuse the balanced self-challenge of genuine tapas with merely painful penance springing from ignorance and a subconscious masochism are bound to reap only pain and suffering that will undermine their physical health and contribute to emotional instability or even mental illness.
Two and a half thousand years ago, Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, learned the important difference between genuine (i.e., self-transcending) tapas and misconceived penance. For six long years he pushed himself until his bodily frame had become emaciated and close to collapse, but still it had not yielded the longed-for spiritual freedom. Finally, Gautama’s inner wisdom led him to take the middle path (madhya-marga) instead of damaging extremes. He abandoned his severe, self-destructive tapas and began to nourish his body properly. His fellow ascetics, who had always looked to him for inspiration, thought he had returned to a worldly life and shunned him. But later, after his spiritual awakening, their paths crossed again, and Gautama’s radiance was so impressive they could not help but bow to him in respect.
Genuine tapas makes us shine like the sun. Then we can be a source of warmth, comfort, and strength for others.
This article originally appeared in the December/January 2003 issue of Yoga International.
Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D. (1947-2012), authored over forty-five books, including The Deeper Dimension of Yoga and The Yoga Tradition, and created distance-learning courses on Yoga philosophy and history through Traditional Yoga Studies.