The third niyama, tapas, is a tricky one. Along with svadhaya and isvara pranidhana, the fourth and fifth niyamas, tapas shows up in several places in the yoga sutras, so we know it’s really important, but the translation is hard. Tapas means “to burn”. It can mean “austerity”, or a “purifying flame”, or “self-discipline”, or “self-restraint”. So what is it, and how do we practice it?
When J makes us hold a challenging pose for a long time in yoga class, he’ll come over to me and whisper “tapas” to me while I struggle (he has seriously done this at least twice now). Tapas means to feel the burn of the pose, and instead of giving up, to grit my teeth and stick it out (and to not punch J who is just trying to encourage me). Tapas is a purifying burn because when I hold the pose, when I stick it out, I become stronger. Tapas is both the burn itself and the self-discipline to stay there and experience the burning.
Both Satchidananda and Devi have useful things to say about tapas (although I had to cross-reference to the other mentions of tapas in the sutras to get a fuller understanding). Satchidananda says that anything that causes us pain will make us stronger and give us steady minds. Rather than running from pain, he encourages us to welcome pain, to suffer through it, because we’ll emerge on the other side purified and strong. He gives the example of washing cloth. When a shirt is dirty, do we just spray some perfume on it and then fold it up again? No, we wash it. In the US we have machines to do this for us, but whether you’re using technology or river water and a rock, the shirt gets soaked, spun around, scrubbed, thrashed, and beaten. Then we squeeze it out, leave it to dry under the hot sun, or put it in a clothes dryer, where it tumbles around under high heat. Then we take it out, lay it on a table, and press it flat with a hot iron. All of this can’t be fun for the shirt, but afterward, the shirt is purified, free of dirt and wrinkles, and fit for us to wear. So it is with tapas.
We can make a practice of tapas with all the worst people in our lives. Satchidananda says that when someone insults you or frustrates you, the best response is just to smile and accept it. Try to bring love and compassion to the challenge, and as well as the understanding that you’ll be stronger afterward. And Satchidananda says we should even try to thank the person who causes the pain: “Thank you for causing me so much frustration today. I know you just want to make me stronger. Bring your friends next time.”
The other day a friend asked me which yama I’d use to deal with a frustrating person. She had done her best to help this person, going out of her way to do so, but what she had to offer him wasn’t what he wanted, so he just got annoyed. My friend felt like her sincere and generously given help was thrown back in her face, and she spent the rest of the day seething about it. I told her I’d try to practice ahimsa, which is still a good thing to practice, but now I’m thinking this is a job for tapas. “Yes, annoyed guy, I see that my help wasn’t enough for you. That’s fine. I’ll still try to give you what you need.” What an incredibly hard thing to do! Thank goodness we have so many chances to practice, right?
So tapas is the burn of our muscles as we work physically, as well as the flame we feel internally in tough situations. Tapas is also our self-discipline to persevere with the exercise, our self-restraint in not yelling at the other person. With tapas, we can turn the everyday annoyances of our lives into opportunities to respond to others with love and compassion, or at least serenity. With tapas we can reflect to ourselves that, no matter how maddening this person seems to me right now, he deserves my compassion for whatever he’s suffering in his life today. What I like about tapas is that it forces us to see the silver lining, even if it’s just “if I get through this, I’ll be a stronger person.” With tapas we can turn frustration into opportunity.