Spending time in France last month, I got to thinking about the Niyama of Tapas. There’s nowhere quite like France to force you to draw on your deepest reserves of Tapas to get you through the day. Everywhere you look, an opportunity arises to indulge in some of the country’s fabulousness: the restaurants, the wine, the cheeses, the pastries (dear God, the pastries!). I love the French way of life and how indulgence, within reason, is approved of. The queues outside the boulangerie every Sunday morning are testament to that. But I’m glad I have my yoga practice to keep me on the straight and narrow in an environment where I could easily eat pastries for breakfast, laze in the sun all day and drink wine every night.
Tapas in yoga philosophy is one of the Niyamas, the second of the eight limbs of yoga outlined in the Yoga Sutras. The word comes from the root Sanskrit verb “tap”, which means to burn and implies a sense of “fiery discipline” or “passion”. Tapas can mean cultivating a sense of self-discipline, the passion to burn away the physical, mental, and emotional blocks that might be standing in the way of creating a happy, fulfilling life for ourselves.
But Tapas is often translated simply as “discipline” or worse, “austerity”. Yoga Sutra 111.17 talks about the distinction between the words we use, their meaning, and the idea that is created in the mind, “Pratyaya”, when we hear a word. The idea that the word “discipline” creates is often negative. It can make us think of being deprived of something or being punished or made to do something we don’t want to do. If we were told at school that we didn’t have enough of it, for example, the word could make us feel “less than”. Discipline can be linked to fundamentalism, maybe a fundamental teaching style or a very strict parenting style. So, the very idea of discipline can be triggering. We either feel guilty about not having enough of it or resist it because it brings back bad memories. And it certainly doesn’t sound like fun. Rarely do we think of someone disciplined as the kind of person you might find dancing on the tables at 4 am.
And yet, I know that if I could bottle discipline and sell it to every student who asks about it, I’d be a wealthy woman. So, if you can’t buy it, how do you get it? A good place to start might be to redefine your idea of discipline. Yoga teacher David Garrigues talked about this in a recent podcast, explaining that there are positive ways to look at discipline, such as this dictionary definition he quotes:
Discipline: “An activity, exercise or regimen that develops or improves a skill.”
That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? It’s just doing something that makes you better at doing something. Like, for example, getting on the mat so you’ll get better at getting on the mat.
Because really, that’s all it takes. If you genuinely want to make yoga a part of your life and develop a self-practice, all you need to do is put in the time – even small amounts of time, to begin with – and the Tapas you need will develop.
It only works, though, if you really want to develop a yoga practice. Just because everyone you know seems to be doing yoga, it doesn’t mean you have to do it too. You’re never going to develop the discipline to practise if you neither like yoga nor have a genuine desire to develop a self-practice. So be honest with yourself, and if you know you’re only talking about a yoga practice because you think it’s something you should do, then find something else to do instead. There are mountains to climb, oceans to surf, marathons to run, beautiful walks to explore – lots of other ways to build resilience and take care of yourself that might be suit you better.
A big mistake I made in the early days was assuming that if I didn’t have 90 minutes to get through the full Primary Series, there was no point in getting on the mat. So don’t overthink it. Don’t even consider how much time you have to practise; just get on the mat, even if you have only minutes to spare. You’ll find that stepping on the mat for a single sun salutation can often turn into a longer practice. Getting on the mat is the habit you want to develop, so do whatever it is that gets you there. (for more ideas, see my earlier post on building a self-practice).
The good news is that there is deep satisfaction in developing your own discipline, so maybe it’s just as well you can’t buy it off the shelf. Keep getting on the mat and give the element of Tapas a chance to evolve. Do a little practice. Then do it again the next day. Tell yourself you’ll keep doing that for a week. If you miss a day, don’t beat yourself up; just start the next day again. The more you practise, the better you’ll feel. You’ll find that passion for practice creeping up on you. Passing a French boulangerie, you’ll be able to stare that chocolate almond croissant down just by thinking about how good you’ll feel after practice the next day. That’s Tapas in action. Your love for your practice will overcome any burning desire for the things that interfere with it.
As Daniel Simpson, yoga philosophy scholar and author of “The Truth of Yoga”, puts it, “The practice of yoga replaces old habits with healthier alternatives. Paying attention to cause and effect helps us modify tendencies shaping our conduct. Although the cycle of karma continues, we can learn to let go of what adds to our burden, prioritising actions that generate peace and an expanded perspective.“
And remember that you don’t have to become a monk or a nun and never again eat a French pastry, drink a glass of wine or go to bed after 10 pm. Everything in moderation, as the saying goes. I’m all for prioritising your practice. It’s how yoga gets hard-wired into your system to the point where you can’t imagine life without it. But pushing yourself too hard and prioritising your practice to the exclusion of all else is symptomatic of the darker side of Tapas. Tapas running rampant, if you like. It’s where rigidity and zealotry (never mind injuries) creep in, and that’s to be avoided at all costs. So, while I’m happy that my yoga practice has helped me build the Tapas to make choices in my life that work for me, every once in a while, I indulge. Because that’s yoga too. To paraphrase the late, great yoga teacher, Maty Azraty, who said, “sometimes, a walk in the forest is your yoga practice‘, well, sometimes, joining that queue outside the boulangerie on a Sunday morning and choosing exactly what I want is my yoga practice.
David Garrigues Yoga Podcast on Soundcloud: Yoga Sutra 3:17: Why Words Matter