Tapas is not just a Spanish appetizer. The word is also found in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras describing the Niyamas (2:32) or observances in the 8-fold path.
The term tapas derived from the Sanskrit root “tap” meaning “to burn” and implies a sense of fiery discipline or passion. In this sense, tapas can mean cultivating restraint or an effort made to burn away impurities physically, mentally and emotionally. Tapas also refers to the heat that gets our heart pumping and motivates us toward change. Lois Nesbitt (yoga teacher) described the heat of tapas comes from “the friction generated by going against the grain of habit, of complacency, of doing what is easiest” (2009, para. 5). The purpose of tapas is to burn off the heaviness in our bodies, energy flow, and mental processes to awaken the dormant energy within.
During asana (the physical practice of yoga), tapas can be the simple discipline of making time for our personal practice. It can also apply to the type of practice we do – maybe a hot yoga class or an intense period of meditation. Challenging our bodies to build strength and open chronic tension as well as changing habitual movement patterns are tapas practices.
Pranayama practices can also be used to challenge our habitual breathing practices. A simple practice of expanding your breath capacity – making longer breaths through systematic lengthening of inhale, retention, exhale, and suspension of breath – helps build heat and vitality. Ujjayi engages a gentle constriction of the muscles at the back of the throat to focus the attention and adjust your breathing. Strong exhalation through the mouth (optionally using the Lion face) increases the force of the breath, helping the body release tension in the neck and throat.
Mediation practices using long periods of silence can be a challenging tapas practice. The challenge of staying silent can create agitation in our busy minds, but it also offers a time for reflection on our mind habits. Even 1 minute of silence can be a challenge – give it a try now! Set a timer and close your eyes. Notice you mind/thinking patterns for just one minute. A regular practice of sitting still, observing your thoughts can help clarify your understanding of how you work!