The Yamas and Niyamas are Yoga’s ethical precepts as outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The Yamas are practices that govern our outward behavior and the Niyamas are internal observances. The fourth Niyama is Tapas, which in this context is often translated as “discipline”.
Samskaras are mental grooves that become hardened psycho-spiritual patterns as they are repeated over time. They effect our speech, actions, and according to yogic philosophy are the basis of karma.
Or as this saying attributed to Lao Tzu so aptly articulates:
Watch your thoughts, for they become your words;
Watch your words, for they become your actions;
Watch your actions, for they become your habits;
Watch your habits, for they become your character;
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
People do not tend to intentionally form negative patterns in their lives, yet personally, socially, societally, and environmentally, we seem to create a lot of them. Rather than having been consciously chosen, many of our most distressing thoughts and behaviors manifest as habits in we engage in in the dailiness of life. Change is difficult because we are not attempting to alter just one harmful thought or behavior. Sustainable change requires uprooting an entire system that allows the thought or behavior to thrive.
Tapas: Putting change into practice.
Tapas is the energy that allows us to feel the drive to repeat harmful samskaras, yet choose not to act on it. This opportunity occurs the moment we notice the urge to engage in unhelpful thoughts and behaviors. In that moment we have the chance to do something different instead. However, in order to apply Tapas we must first realize that something needs to change.
Awareness is the gateway to change. Only when we become aware of a problem and the harm it causes can we do something about it. Yoga practices helps us become aware we are engaging in harmful thoughts and behaviors.
Yoga is a loving practice. Love is not easy. Sometimes love requires that we do difficult things. Our culture supports consumption and comfortability. Yogic living is living counter-culturally. It teaches us not to avoid difficulty, but to compassionately go into it.
Change may not be easy, but it need not be a hardship either. Although some translate Tapas as austerities, we can still find joy in the process. When we choose to live a yogic life, our environment and relationships rise to meet us. We find ourselves supported by companions and teachers and find that we have all we need to make the changes that allow us to live lives of love and service. We get help when we need it, learn from our mistakes, and celebrate our small and large victories alike! Unencumbered by the chains of our samskaras, we experience a greater degree of harmony and flow in our lives. This freedom from suffering over our suffering is indeed the state of Yoga itself.
We can practice Tapas both on and off our yoga mats. Here are some ideas for getting started:
- Don’t automatically avoid challenging yoga poses. Give them a try! Do take care and listen to your body, but don’t assume that you can’t do something. You may be pleasantly surprised at all of which you are capable!
- Likewise, when you are fatigued, not feeling well, or recovering from an injury, Tapas may mean having the discipline to hold back the intensity of your asana practice. If you normally practice a difficult pose with ease but find it potentially harmful due to illness or injury, consider what the point would be of forcing your way into it.
- Consider your values. Then consider the habits of your daily life. Are all of your habits and tendencies in alignment with your values? Most of us probably have areas we would like to improve. Write in a journal about yours.
- Try something new! Art, music, writing, public speaking, getting up earlier…. Let it be something that is challenging, but doable. Practice, practice, practice. Don’t worry about the outcome or getting “results”. Simply appreciate the process.