Igniting Tapas (discipline)

indianlampThere are some days when it’s just hard to get out of bed. As the days get shorter, we can find our motivation a bit snuffed out. Summer’s bright sunshine can inspire us and ignite our inner inspiration, but as Autumn progresses, it may be difficult to keep that inner fire going.

That internal flame that motivates us is called Tapas in yoga philosophy. Tapas is a Sanskrit word that literally means “fire; to burn”. It’s that inner motivation that gets us on the yoga mat day after day (or whenever you can muster it!). It is the discipline and determination that fires us up about our goals and dreams. One of yoga’s core philosophical principles, Tapas is the heart of the 5 Niyamas, or “non-restraints” – practices that greatly enhance one’s progress on the path of yoga.

Inspiring action

In fact, Tapas, or self-discipline, was so revered by Patanjali, one of the ancient masters of yoga philosophy, that he considered it essential (along with intense self-study and self-surrender) for the practice of Kriya yoga. Kriya yoga is the yoga of “action” – encompassing all the active practices which take us towards the state of yoga, or oneness.

Tapas has been practiced for millennia by spiritual aspirants of many traditions. It has been harnessed to achieve stunning self-discipline and even self-denial in some of the more intense spiritual practices, such as fasting, meditating for hours at a time, and even extreme and exotic acts, like standing on one foot for a number of years!

Inner Flame

Think of Tapas as that little flame inside of you that motivates you and keeps you on track with anything of importance in life. It makes you floss when you don’t feel like it. That inner fire motivates you to make changes when you know you need to. Without Tapas, we probably wouldn’t bother to do the “hard” things in life, and therefore to make any sort of progress, especially when embarking on the spiritual path.

TKV Desikachar, a modern-day yoga master, states that Tapas is a “means by which we keep ourselves healthy and cleanse ourselves inwardly”, for tapas also means “cleanse” in Sanskrit. So in yoga practice, tapas is the heat that is generated as our internal purification, like the process of purifying gold.

Discipline

When we undertake the practice of yoga, or any spiritual practice, the flame of Tapas needs to burn brightly within us if we are to achieve anything more than a little light exercise. Tapas helps us through the uncomfortable sensations, motivates us to try difficult maneuvers, and also pulls in the reins when we become a bit full of ourselves or risk injuring our body. Without that inner discipline and determination, we’d be unlikely to look at the finer practices of yoga that, through rigorous self-awareness, bring inner peace and open us to greater oneness.

What happens to us, then, on those days – or perhaps months or even years – when the fire seems to be out? Haven’t we all been through periods of time when the motivation to do what we know we need to do seems lacking? And not just a lack of that inner fire – occasionally, we even have an internal resistance to becoming motivated at all.
Shifting resistance

Feeling stuck and resistant can be a starting point to ignite tapas. All things change – this is one of the physical laws of the universe. Even a state of inertia at some point will shift, as we see in a compost pile. We may think that the leaves just sit in the bin, doing nothing. Actually, the leaves are indeed not doing – but something is being done to them. By adding some warmth and other elements, like worms, change is initiated, and the leaves become transformed.

One way, then, that tapas can be ignited is by NOT resisting the resistance.  Don’t avoid the resistance – just sit. Sit still, as if in meditation, with the spine tall in a healthy position for your body. Choose a time to try this when you aren’t feeling sleepy, so you can have the full effect. You can either close your eyes or open them. But insist on sitting completely still. Do not let a muscle twitch, do not scratch an itch. See if you can do this for 10 minutes, without even chanting a mantra if you are used to doing so.

Doing nothing initiates doing something

What most of us will find, particularly if you are not accustomed to meditating, is that a lot will be going on in that sitting still. If the mind seemed relaxed, or even bored, suddenly the mind will begin to protest, or daydream, or wish that you were doing something else. The body often becomes restless, desperately wanting to move, shift, stretch – to do something.

You can use this restlessness, this desire to get up and do ANYTHING but sitting still, like a couple pieces of flint. Rub them together, and then get a spark going. Sitting still creates heat, an internal motivation, within one’s consciousness. Then, you can let that spark ignite your internal motivation. Have in mind a couple choices of activities that you’ve wanted to practice or something you’d like to get done. When you’re finished sitting for ten minutes, you just may feel like getting up and doing your yoga practice, or cleaning out that closet you’ve avoided for a few years.

Simple little bits

Another helpful way to fan the inner discipline of tapas is to pick a small activity to engage in regularly, for a short time. For example, let’s say you’d like to do a yoga practice every morning, but you just can’t seem to do it. But you probably could do a 1 minute practice every morning when you first wake up. Try out some arm movements with the breath: inhale and reach the arms out and overhead; exhale, reach them out and down. Inhale, expand them out to the sides, and then exhale, wrap them around you like a big hug. Simple, and you can even do this sitting up in bed if you wish.

Do this, and only this, or some other short and simple practice, for a month straight. Just one minute. But do that minute, consistently, every day. Set a timer to help you out. When your month is up, you’ll have this pattern programmed into your daily habits, and you did it with just a little bit of Tapas, that inner discipline.

Small steps like this can build up, consistently over time, to larger practices that take a well-established inner determination. After your month commitment, you can look at your practice again and decide if you want to add on to it. Just another minute, if you like, or more. Do that for another month, and see how that is. From here, you can see your success –  it really is possible to discipline yourself to do things you don’t want to do.

Observe yourself

For a greater challenge that you can take out into your life, but one that doesn’t require you to add any time-consuming activities to an already busy schedule, bring that discipline of Tapas into observing yourself.

You could undertake noticing when you are impatient, and practice being more kind, accepting, calm, or in the present moment. Or spend a week paying attention to worries: how often they come up, how much energy they use, and questioning whether they are productive, helpful, or insightful. Then, with an exhale, imagine letting go of the worries as if you were exhaling out smoke.

On and off the mat

These are yogic practices both on and off “the mat” that can hone the internal discipline of tapas. They may not be easy, but if you explore them even for just a few days, you’ll increase your capacity to apply tapas to the most challenging endeavors.

Apply exercises like these to doing meditation, poses that you avoid, writing your dream novel, changing your diet, beginning a search for a new job – anything that requires that inner discipline of Tapas. Doing a little bit everyday or weekly can keep the inner fire of motivation going through the cold season, and can also be the foundation that carries you towards transcendence.

Copyright © 2007, 2012 by Constance L. Habash

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