The meaning of the Sanskrit word, tapas, has eluded me for many years. It is often translated as austerity. I never liked the word austerity as it never sounded inviting. Why would I take time out in a stress filled world to do something that sounds like the deprivation of pleasure? The austerity of fasting, get rid of all possessions, walk out in the cold in bare feet, or sleeping on a bed of nails just don't appeal to me in the least.
However, the other meaning of tapas is heat or more specifically the shining radiance of fire that gives off heat. (1) From this interpretation tapas drives the effort of actions by which our inherent radiance can shine. Now that sounds worthy of doing my yoga practice. From this perspective tapas is about shining with vibrancy, attractiveness, beauty, health, and strength. Tapas is whatever moves us closer to our true state of being that is luminous. Because we have forgotten that we are inherently radiant, tapas is about overcoming the resistance to change that keeps us out of our light. As appealing as it can be, seeking pleasure may not lead me to find my inner luminosity. Tapas is like forging rough metal into a shining sword blade of steel. The metal is refined to reveal its shining beauty and most effective nature - sharp and precise.
In humans tapas is to refine the body to have vitality, good health and strength. It is to refine the speech to be in truth that is helpful and good. It is to refine the mind to be clear, single-focused and serene. Tapas leads to our experiencing beauty, vitality, appeal, and self-healing. The senses obtain their full capacity and intuition is enhanced. Tapas allows us to become fully human as the expression of our unblemished radiance.
One of the cornerstones to practicing yoga is to apply tapas, through the efforts of a healthy life style, proper self-restaints and self-observances, movement of the body, breath awareness, and meditation.
It is in overcoming the resistance to change that it can feel like torture. If the change leads to harm, then it is in fact torture; however, when the change is t to increase strength, vitality, appeal, clarity then that is tapas. To do a fast to lose weight to the point of passing out is harming. To fast for the purpose of cleansing the body to become stronger and less inflammed then the austerity is worth it. In order for austerity to be considered tapas it must lead to greater radiance of being.
1. Tigunait, Rajamni, The Practice of the Yoga Sutra:Sadhana Pada, Himalayan Institute, Honesdale, 2017.
Om. Peace. Peace. Peace.