Tapas is the third niyama (or recommended habit), which is the 2nd limb of the eight-limbed path of yoga. It means purification through self-discipline. Tapas is an inner fire that burns away impurities or obscurations, removing obstacles on the path to liberation. It can be helpful to imagine tapas as the heat eminating from the friction that is generated when we work against our unhelpful habits and conditioning.
Through self-discipline or training of the senses (tapas), there comes a destruction of mental impurities, and an ensuing mastery or perfection over the body and the mental organs of senses and actions – Yoga Sutras 2.43
Cultivating tapas does not necessarily mean doing more or working harder just to serve the ego. Catering to our desired image of ourselves only serves to reinforce delusion and keeps us from seeing things as they really are. Rather, tapas requires the exertion of “right effort” to realize our higher intentions.
“Right effort” may be the gentle or shortened practice that we take when life presents us with obstacles. When we heed the inner wisdom that encourages us to take practice even when we are really busy or we are feeling down or a little under the weather, we are cultivating tapas. It may also mean being mindful of the substances we put into our bodies in order to better serve our practice. Or, it may mean sitting a bit with discomfort rather than avoiding or distracting ourselves from it.
When we have cultivated the inner fire of tapas, the practice no longer feels like a chore, an obligation, or something we dread. Over time and with consistency, there emerges an implicit faith in the benefits of practice. This drives devotion, which is the natural result of this deep understanding. What lights your inner fire and motivates your practice?