What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the word “discipline?” I used to think of misery, pain, boredom, and lack of energy. However, my understanding changed in the last year.
At the beginning of 2019, I had reached a significant goal. I had lost a total of 70 pounds, 25% body fat, and I had done it all with a smile on my face and with an ease I never thought possible. When I talked about my journey, people thought I was joking when I said it was fun. The idea of eating clean, exercising routinely, and creating healthy habits is so often associated with pain, suffering, and sacrifice. This is exactly the attitude I had most of my life. However, something in me shifted and I felt driven and guided by an inner force. I would wake up every day excited to see what the day had in store for me. My new lifestyle took little thought – it was just part who I was. The word “discipline” never dawned on me because I never felt miserable, bored, drained of energy, or like I was suffering.
A few months ago, a yoga friend pointed out that my tapas practice was strong. Tapas is one of the five niyamas of yoga in which our focus is on ourselves and living a positive life. The mere mention of tapas was all that I needed to help me realize that my practice had shifted. I love studying the Yoga Sutras and teaching what I can about them in an accessible way, but tapas always eluded me. I had never truly known what it was like to have the energy of tapas propelling me forward in life.
My first introduction to tapas was in 2001 and the description used was “austerity.” Is austerity in your vocabulary? To me, it provokes images of monks flailing themselves or a practice of living sparsely. I understood in yoga the concept meant discipline. I used to explain “it’s something you know is good for you, so you do it every day whether you are in the mood or not. You get on your yoga mat and practice every day because you know it will help your spiritual development.” What do you think? Does this description inspire you? No? I don’t blame you.
When teaching all the niyamas, I would give this description and quickly try to move onto the next niyama because I honestly had no life experience with tapas. I had little to no understanding, try as I might, from reading many books with many great commentaries. I just couldn’t connect it to my life.
Tapas’ first job is to move us out of inertia. So, my limited understanding in the past was partially correct. The trick is to stick with whatever new discipline you are cultivating. But the fun part starts AFTER you just “stick with it.” The fun comes when tapas builds and starts to burn inside of us. What felt like a fight to dig myself out of inertia, changed into feelings of determination, fierce action, and unwavering commitment. Tapas starts to build on itself and we can feed off this energy. I found myself more confident, feeling self-esteem, seeing results from my practice, and it was all due to the energy of tapas burning away the things that held me back. It can actually detox impurities in the body, clear our minds of the mental impurities that held us back for so long, and lift our energy and spirits upward.
The initial work isn’t easy. It’s damn hard. I had hit my bottom in October 2017 and was determined to make the changes needed. That determination drove me until tapas started to burn in me. Tapas fueled my fire and passion for my new life and it still drives me and gives me the enthusiasm and love of life. I still wake up every day excited about what’s to come and in fact, I love this feeling of tapas so much that now I find myself looking for new disciplines to add into my life.
Pandit Rajmani Tigunait discusses tapas in his book The Practice of the Yoga Sutras. He explains that tapas is “Practice that ignites our inner fire, brings out our inner radiance, and makes us vibrant and energetic… enables us to recapture the joy and spontaneity of childhood and the enthusiasm and stamina of youth.” So, how does this description make you feel? More inspired, I hope!