Philosophy Yoga

Tapas: how to heat up your yoga practice

Apologies my dear readers, but this is not a post about those little Spanish sharing dishes, delicious as they may be. Today I want to talk about tapas in the yogic sense.

Tapas is a Sanskrit word meaning “purification through discipline” and is one of the 5 Niyamas. These are a set of moral codes (observances is the literal translation) that yogis try to live by in order to lead a conscious life. They come from a set of ancient texts called the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written by the sage Patanjali over 2000 years ago.

Another nice explanation of tapas is:

“Through discipline, we can burn away impurities and spark the divinity within us”

and

“Voluntary self-challenge as a means to spiritual growth”

You get the idea. Going against the grain of habit in order to become the best versions of ourselves.

When I sat down to reflect on this concept, I had to really think hard about what it meant to me and why I practice discipline in various aspects of my life. It made me think about my goals and dreams and what makes me want them so much in the first place. What makes me jump out of bed every morning to work towards these goals?

Why do we practice tapas?

We practice tapas in order to free ourselves from bad habits and patterns that are no longer serving us. Only when those impurities are removed can we see the world clearly and consciously, leading to a healthier, happier life!

“Impurities” could mean whatever it is in your life that you know is not helping you to be the best version of you; negative thought patterns, smoking, a destructive relationship. It can be really uncomfortable to let go of such habits after living with them for so long, but the only way to experience real transformation is to face the discomfort head on, with fiery discipline.

I think ultimately we practice tapas to become masters of our own bodies, minds and senses. In the yogic world, this would lead us further down the path to spiritual transformation and enlightenment.

But let’s face it, most modern day yogis don’t turn up to class to become one with the universe! We just want to sweat, bend and find a little more mental clarity. No matter what our reason for turning up on the mat, when we apply tapas to our practice (and everyday life) it can be a powerful tool for transformation.

My daily dose of tapas: Ashtanga yoga

All types of asana practice have an element of tapas to them but with Ashtanga it’s just so gloriously obvious and unapologetic, which is one of the reasons this system appealed to me in the first place. Here are just some of the ways a traditional Ashtanga routine can ignite our tapas, our internal fiery discipline:

  • Practicing challenging asanas and still maintaining focus on the breath and drishti
  • Remaining still in the postures – no fidgeting
  • Persevering through the series even when you’re sweaty and out of breath from the vinyasas
  • Not skipping postures just because you don’t like them
  • Noticing if the mind has wandered and bringing attention back to the breath time and time again
  • Getting out of bed super early in the morning to practice is a mental challenge every single day!
  • Having the mental patience to practice the same asanas every day
  • Learning to confront uncomfortable emotions emerging as you open up tight areas in the body

You can see there are elements of tapas woven throughout the practice on a physical, mental and emotional level.

chaturanga

Chaturanga – when practiced with discipline, over time even this one becomes effortless!

And through this practice I’ve experienced different types of transformation already, on each of these three levels. Physically I’m in better shape than ever and mentally/emotionally I feel less overwhelmed by anxiety.

My practice of tapas could be completely different to yours and that’s fine. In fact, on certain days, my version of tapas is to not do an Ashtanga practice. I have to discipline myself to stop pushing too hard physically (stop allowing my ego to take over) and do a slower Yin class, for example.

You’ll know deep down which aspects of your life require attention and there’s no point in trying to fool yourself! If you struggle to sit still and are full of ambition, energy and restlessness, your tapas in yoga might be a very slow, gentle class. And if you struggle to get out of the morning, lie on the sofa all day watching Netflix then your tapas is to get your butt to a 6am Ashtanga class.

What about treating yo’self?

Of course it’s important that you don’t get so carried away with your tapas that you neglect to treat yourself every once in a while! When we practice tapas in balance with the other yamas and niyamas such as ahimsa (non-violence – treating ourselves with compassion and love) and santosha (contentment – being happy with where we are in the process right now), we find a perfectly balanced approach to working towards our goals, both on and off the mat.


I really enjoyed reflecting on this concept over the past few days and writing this post has encouraged me to do some deep self-inquiry. It’s a great way to keep you honest in your yoga practice and remind you why you are working towards your goals on and off the mat. Here are some questions that may help you reflect on your own practice:

  • How can you create a more challenging yoga practice? This doesn’t have to mean more “advanced” asanas, but something that doesn’t come naturally to you at this point in time. It could even be sitting still on your mat for ten minutes!
  • Are there any particular poses you are avoiding?
  • Which habits in your life are not helping you to be the best version of you? What small change could you make to your daily routine to let them go?
  • How could you use your tapas to create a new, healthier habit in your life? Don’t forget, it could be “treat myself more”!

I’d love to hear from you guys – how do you practice tapas on / off the mat?

Thanks for reading! Love Nat x

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