Tapas or “Seeing Challenges as Potential Grounds for Growth”

tapasIn this week’s article here at “The Living Yoga Blog” we continue our exploration of the ethical principles of Yoga with the third niyama, tapas or “seeing challenges as potential grounds for growth.”  As with our previous principles, we’ll look at tapas in both the direct and subtle forms in which it can be understood, as well as concrete ways we can apply it on the mat and in our lives.

Origins & Correcting Misperceptions 

The first thing it can be helpful to know about tapas is it’s often misconstrued here in the west.  However, very much like brahmacharya, if we take the time to learn a bit about the origins and context in which the idea evolved, we can bypass these common errors of understanding and better appreciate the true value of this principle.

To begin, tapas is often translated as purification or cleansing, which is understandable since the word literally means “fire” or “heat.”  If we then combine this with the fact most of us here come to Yoga through the physical side, it’s easy to see where the idea of purification comes from.  However, originally tapas had nothing to do with “hot yoga” or detoxing through vigorous practice, but rather about personal growth.  Let’s take a look at the background to understand why.

In the Vedic culture where Yoga evolved, tapas actually referred to the sacred fire found in both public and private ceremony.  Every temple and home had an altar and flame, and daily offerings were a central part of family life as well as communal worship.  Tending the fire and observing the practice of offering were considered absolutely crucial, as they provided a daily reminder of the blessings of life and the dedication and effort of those before us who made our lives possible.  Both maintaining the altar and giving offering – often just symbolic – were seen as vital to staying in touch with the sanctity of life and also avoiding the common error of falling into a life of attachment and selfishness, an error from which most of our suffering arises.  By making a point of taking time on a daily basis to appreciate life’s blessings and symbolically offer back, the Yogis and their predecessors found we can help preserve the healthy perspective on life essential for true happiness and peace.

Decline & Reclaiming of An Ideal

Of course, as with all forms of ceremony, even in ancient India there were those who took this ritual more literally than symbolically and in turn got lost in the specifics.  What began as a practice for remembering and honoring for many people became one of pretense and appearance – a pattern the Yogis sought to reverse.

The Yogic understanding of tapas goes back to the heart of the ceremony, where it was believed the fire served to basically liberate the essence of the offering – freeing it from its “worldly trappings,” as it were, so it could ascend to the heavens and nourish the cycle of life.  In a similar way, the Yogis realized challenges or “friction” in our lives – which are akin to the flame of the altar – can often help us realize attachments or fears or assumptions which are in fact what make the situation “painful.”  That is, by looking at situations where we feel tension or discomfort, we are often able to see that our feelings come not from the situation itself but in fact from our own (mistaken) thoughts.  With this understanding, these moments can actually be transformed from sources of suffering and “retraction” into grounds for growth – helping us shed the misunderstands which lead to pain or dis-ease and move toward our natural state of peace and joy, very much like the fire of the sacred altar.

Tapas vs. “Mortification of the Flesh” 

Once we understand this original form of tapas, it should be clear it is very different from and ultimately the opposite of the idea of “mortifying the flesh” seen in some traditions.  Classically, tapas is not about seeking out or generating friction or pain, even if the end result is “purifying.”  In the Yogic view, we humans already generate plenty of friction from our own less-than-ideal choices and do not need to add to them – either for ourselves or for those around us.  Similarly, tapas is in no way about “punishing the flesh” or using pain to “break” our attachment to our bodies or the pleasure they can provide.  Again, as discussed in many of our previous articles, the Yogis believed our bodies are in fact wonderful and precious instruments of growth and service and in turn should be treated lovingly and kindly.  The idea of needing to “purge” our bodies of weakness – physical or “spiritual” – is not only not a part of tapas but is in fact very clearly a corruption and distortion of the idea.

Ideally, through tapas we are learning not only how to care for our bodies but also how to watch for and learn from thoughts such as attachment or fear or over-indulgence that ultimately can lead us to “dis-ease.”  Of course, at times that can involve accepting or even choosing a challenge that might initially generate some discomfort – whether facing a physical challenge or even looking at issues in ourselves it might be more “comfortable” to ignore – but it’s important not to confuse this with the myth of “no pain, no gain,” let alone actively generating it for ourselves or others in our lives.

From Material to Mental

This observation naturally leads to our next reminder, which – as with previous guidelines – is that tapas is as much about the mental as it is the material.  Of course, we all know physical discomfort often pales by comparison to emotional challenges, and likewise many of us have a tendency to avoid emotional situations from which we could learn valuable lessons – in fact, often choosing physical discomfort (such as that brought about by over-eating or other “escapist” patterns) in the name of avoiding emotional issues.  In this sense, tapas is not only about learning from physical challenges but also from the tension or friction that can arise from feelings and thoughts – even and especially “long-held” beliefs.  By learning to pause and consider possible lessons before reflexively “retracting” or escaping through physical or mental avenues, we can often break out of long-standing patterns that have kept us from evolving emotionally, interpersonally, and spiritually.

 Tapas & Kenny Rogers, i.e. Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em….

A final aspect of tapas it can be helpful to bear in mind is that tapas should not be mistaken for martyrdom or the principle of learning to “muscle through” discomfort.  To paraphrase Freud’s famous observation: “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” likewise sometimes uncomfortable situations are simply things we need to discontinue or avoid.  Maybe we need to learn why our boss tends to “push our buttons” or why a neighbor irritates us, or maybe we simply need to quit our job or confront our neighbor with our feelings.  The idea of tapas encourages us to always look at and evaluate the former, but is not meant to preclude the fact that sometimes we simply need to address our situation.

Further, it’s worth noting that often it can be a matter of both – that is, sometimes we have valuable lessons to learn and it still would be good for us to address the actual external situation.  The main thing, once again, is tapas shouldn’t be misunderstood as “It’s always you…” or “Pain is weakness leaving the body” (or mind).  Simply put, sometimes pain is a valuable lesson about our own thoughts and assumptions and sometimes it is a simple indicator that we need to shift, whether that pain is physical, mental, or “spiritual.”

Tapas On the Mat & In Our Lives

To conclude with a brief look at some of the practical applications of tapas, again we can start with asana.  Once more, because of the physical effort involved in our work on the mat, as well as the discomfort certain movement can bring when we are tight or stiff, it’s natural to equate tapas with “going for the burn.”  But once more this is clearly not the idea behind tapas as the Yogis originally intended.  In fact, if we know that constantly pushing ourselves to the breaking point physically is one of the ways we avoid looking at deeper emotional or spiritual issues in our lives – a need to prove ourselves, for example, or the assumption we must change our bodies on order to be loved and must hurt ourselves to do that – then the true application of tapas might in fact be facing the uncomfortable fact we may not have to work so hard or change at all….

Of course, like our other guidelines, the principle of tapas naturally applies to all areas of our lives, including lifestyle, career, our relationships, and our self-study and growth.  That much said, it’s worth noting we all tend to have different areas where we are better at applying tapas and areas where we are more skilled at “avoiding” or escaping.  For example, we might be very disciplined in diet and exercise but less mindful of looking at negative patterns in our relationships.  Or we might have great courage and self-awareness at home and with family but have a tendency to avoid confrontation at work.  By mindfully exploring each of the avenues of life with the principle of tapas in mind, we can often find the areas in which we can most powerfully benefit from seeing our own contributions to our discomfort – whether through assumptions, attachments, avoidance, or other forms of distorted thinking.  In this way, tapas can ultimately help us experience growth and true happiness as well as helping us support those around us in doing the same….

In Our Next Article… 

Obviously, far more could be said about tapas, but we hope this gives some food for thought in terms of how it might apply to issues on your own personal path.  In our next article we’ll take a look at the fourth niyama, svadhyaya which has an interesting dual meaning in the Yogic tradition of both “self-study” as well as “study of scripture.”  Until then, once again wishing you the best in your own personal relationship to “Living Yoga….”


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