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The Yoga of Action: Tapas (Part 1/3)

Updated: May 18, 2022

Patañjali's Yoga Sutra is a mirror for self-reflection, a framework for understanding the human experience, and a primary text of the Yoga tradition. The second chapter is written for easily distracted novices - that's you and me! - and it presents the concept of kriyā yoga as the "yoga of action" that takes us to a state of Yoga. In this series, we're musing on each of the three aspects of kriyā yoga, beginning with tapas.


तपःस्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि क्रियायोगः ॥ २.१॥ tapaḥ svādhyāya īśvarapraṇidhānāni kriyāyogaḥ (Yoga Sutra 2.1)

Yoga Sutra 2.1
"The yoga of action involves purification of body and mind, study and self-reflection, and surrendering the fruits of action to a higher force" (Saraswathi Vasudevan).
 

Tapas


Pronounced "tuh-puhs" (not like the Spanish snack), tapas is the fire of attention. It is often represented as a flame, because tapas is that which creates heat, that which ripens or cooks, and that which creates change. What happens when you toss raw chestnuts into a hot fire? You get back a mouth-watering winter treat! The fire transformed something hard and inedible into a seasonal delicacy.


Tapas is often translated into English as "austerity" or "discipline," but Patañjali isn't talking here about self-mortification or rigid rules. That's because tapas arises from within; it's never an injunction from without. It's the non-judgemental attention we bring to all our actions, and that attention itself creates a purifying heat. What are we purifying? The fire of tapas burns up negative habit patterns, restrictive beliefs, and the gunky residues we constantly collect from our daily interactions.


So how does tapas operate in real life? One of my friends does a 10-day diet cleanse each fall that prepares him to enjoy with moderation the rich foods of the holiday season. Another has practiced daily journaling for several years in order to set and achieve measurable goals. Both are simple examples of how the fire of attention can be directed inward to give us a clearer view of reality.


Here's a different situation to help discern tapas from other kinds of heat: We just moved overseas with five suitcases and a cat. It's only been two weeks, but I am itching with impatience to find a car. This impatience has produced a restless heat that yesterday flared up in some unkind words to my better half. That fire was burning me up! Afterward, as I took some deep breaths and calmly reflected on what happened, a different spark began to blaze - the cool fire of tapas swept away the ashes of impatience and provided clarity about a wiser path forward. Now my approach to car-buying is less rushed, and I'm ready to take the next step in tune with my partner. See how that moment of attention produced such a different result?

"If you begin to understand what you are without trying to change it, then what you are undergoes a transformation." J. Krishnamurti

Śrī Krishnamacharya taught his students to stoke tapas in two important ways: through non-judgementally observing food and speech. Firstly, food is what builds the body; therefore, the quality, quantity, and timing of our meals have a very direct impact on our physical system. Bringing attention to what, how much, and when we eat allows us to cultivate a more balanced food-body relationship. Secondly, our communication can help or hinder our relationships. By observing our speech, we begin to recognize what is true, necessary, and beneficial, and we simultaneously refine our ability to listen. These both are excellent starting points for fanning the flame of tapas.


Ready to spark your own inner fire? I invite you to pull out your journal, light a candle, and observe what arises in response to the following reflection questions:

  • What does it mean to observe without judgement?

  • How can I bring a quality of attention into my actions and interactions today?

  • What is the attitude I bring to food and to communication?

  • How do I relate to hunger, physically and emotionally?

  • What does it mean to listen well, both to myself and to the other?

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