Yoga in the form of action has three parts: training and purifying the senses (tapas), self-study in the context of teachings (svadhyaya), and 3) devotion and letting go into the creative source from which we emerged (ishvara pranidhana). – Yoga Sutras 2.1
I want to talk about kriya yoga (yoga in action), but first, let’s talk about tapas. Tapas is what gets you out of bed to practice, even though more sleep would feel so good. It’s what makes you nod and give a difficult backbend another try when your teacher suggests it, even though you just want to lie down on you mat and take a rest. Tapas is about accepting seemingly painful experiences, because you know that those small sacrifices train your senses; they teach you to focus and dig deep, and to commit to keeping the fire burning.
Tapas means to heat, to glow, to purify as metal does when it’s heated, to change and transform. In ashtanga, our practice asks that we put ourselves through some hardship. Yes, getting up earlier than we like is one example. There are also dietary choices that may seem a bit austere, but which facilitate strong practice. Keeping a quiet daily routine, so as not to scatter energy, is another small sacrifice made to keep the fire of tapas burning. The discipline of our practice refines the body and clarifies the mind. Pose by pose, breath by breath, day by day, we commit and recommit to our practice.
In our culture, austerity is often viewed with suspicion. We deserve comfortable lives and to do whatever we like, right? Why would we undertake a practice that require putting the body and mind through hardship? The answer is simple: we do it because we vow to be clear-minded and strong and disciplined. Those qualities sound rather tough, but they facilitate a sensitivity and a delicacy of experience that far outweighs a few extra minutes of sleep, a tasty mouthful, or any other casual whim.
Transformation is tough work. Restructuring the body and honing the mind is not for weaklings. Tapas is the fire that makes and keeps us strong.