Many years ago, I took the decision to go on a pilgrimage. The path was very long, all by foot, and I had very few things at my disposal. I remember every morning when I woke up, my mind gave me a thousand reasons to go home: the path was too hard, the dormitory had too many people, the tiredness, and the pressure of all that I had left behind and all that was waiting for me on my return were unbearable. Day after day the simplicity of the journey became my support stick: the beauty of the different colours of dawn, the sweet music of the rain, the silent smiles of the other pilgrims. It wasn’t important to reach any goal, but to savour the precious, simple moments that this journey was offering me, despite all the difficulties.
The third of Patanjali’s Niyamas, the yogi’s behaviours towards himself, is “Tapas”, which translates traditionally as “austerity” or “discipline”. The word tapas is derived from the root Sanskrit verb ‘tap’ which means “to burn” and it appears as the first word of the second chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras tapaḥ-svādhyāyeśvara-praṇidhānāni kriyā-yogaḥ (PYS 2.1), indicating that “we must have a passionate, burning desire to undergo whatever discipline is necessary in order to purify our thoughts, words, and deeds” (Eternity is Happening Now by Sharon Gannon). As yogis we must cook in the fire of our own practice.
Our mind has the tendency to give the term “austerity” a negative connotation. In yoga “austerity” means simplicity, the acceptance of the truth that to be happy we don’t need anything but to know who we truly are. By living a simple life without constantly desiring something external that we think will make us happy, our mind is more present and focused. The more we believe we need certain things to reach a certain goal, the more we will be dependent on them. The simpler we can be the more freedom we will feel. Through simplicity and practice we create heat, needed for purification on a mental and physical level. Simplicity makes the body stronger and the mind calm and concentrated.
Adversities will always exist in life and our mind will find many reasons not to practice. The temptation to become a “good weather practitioner” is just around the corner. But tapas is the ability to sustain ones practice in the face of adversity; it is something revealing, bringing out our capacity. As the Sutra II:43 describes, from the ability of sustaining our practice, great power arises. From a yogic point of view the reason to practice tapas is to remove the veil of impurities to realise our true nature. “Our spiritual practices should transform us in the flames of their difficulty and light a fire within us that burns away selfishness” (Excerpt from Chapter 9, Jivamukti Yoga by Sharon Gannon & David Life).
Both tapas and Manipura chakra are linked to the element of fire (agni), which is the element of “transformation”. We can experience transformation when we embrace challenges taking the conscious decision to allow change to happen: stepping outside of our comfort zone, surrendering to life can be a moment of growth in which we learn more about ourselves. When things are too easy, it is more difficult to learn the life teachings that allow us to become more compassionate, softer and grounded people.
Spiritual and physical practices are tapasic, when we practice consistently over a long period of time. Finding a time every day to be present, it doesn’t matter where, when or for how long, but showing up is crucial. On the yoga mat, tapas means to roll out the mat and practice, may it be asana, pranayama or meditation or even just sitting and journaling. To practice every day, no matter what, is a gracious gift of remembering. As the poet Rumi would say: “Do you pay regular visits to yourself? Start now.”
Eternity is happening now and Jivamukti Book