8 limbs of yoga for modern life: Tapas

This post is the second in this series (read the first one here), where I unpack the 8 limbs of yoga and try to make sense of them in the world in 2019. How do we take these traditional teachings & apply them to modern life?

Today’s post tackles the third of the 5 Niyamas, or personal, internal observances, which make up the second limb of the practice of yoga; Tapas.

What does Tapas mean?

No I’m not talking about delicious Spanish small plates, although they are usually worth a mention :P

In traditional teachings, Tapas means austerity, or intense self-discipline. This sounds pretty intense, right? No-one wants to add more austerity to their lives, no-one wants to have more rules and less fun! We already live in a stressful world, we all have responsibilities and the weight of them can often be too much to bear for some people. Yoga is a way of helping us to deal with this weight; so why would we ever want to add more harshness to our already intense lives?

For me Tapas is about stepping in-to and embracing discomfort as a positive experience. It is about showing up to do the difficult work, even when you don’t want to, in order to reap the benefits & grow. Life is hard. For some people it is harder than others, but ultimately we all have our struggles, and when we live inside our own minds those struggles are the biggest thing in the world for us. Regardless of your situation in life you will always come across moments of discomfort and challenge.

Just like in a yoga class, sometimes it’s just one moment we find challenging (like holding balance in tree-pose!) and sometimes it’s the whole sequence which leaves us sweating and broken on the mat. What we need to remember is that every time we experience discomfort, we are being given an opportunity to evolve.

Human evolve; it’s what we are hard-wired to do. We change and transform on a daily basis. So when we are presented with a challenge, leaning into it is what is going to help us to transform. But here’s the thing: while the body is ready & willing to grow, the mind is built to keep us safe. The brain takes all of our past experiences & lessons we have learned and tries it’s best to keep us safe based on what it knows. Change is unknown, scary & potentially dangerous, so the mind tries to steer us clear of that.

And therefore, if we let the mind keep us in our comfort zone, we never experience change, or growth, and never learn how to evolve. So we just stay here, sitting on our exercise bike, pedalling along but not going anywhere.

The world is run by those that show up
— Ron Nehring

How can discipline be a good thing?

The practice of tapas is our means for growth. It becomes our internal kick-up-the-butt and pushes us to embrace challenge. How many times have you thought that something was going to be awful, put it off for ages and when it finally came down to actually doing it it turned out to be easier / more fun / better than you imagined? I bet a LOT. From that party you didn’t really want to go to, to the project deadline you have been stressing about - we often build up challenge in our minds to be worse than it is. Tapas stops us from waiting around worrying about it and simply get on and do it. Each time we do this it reinforces the messages to our brain that we can face challenge & overcome it.

Each time we show up & do the work required to overcome challenge, we give ourselves the opportunity to grow. Each time we show up to yoga (even when we don’t feel like it!) we give ourselves the opportunity to change. And after time and time again of showing up and putting in the work, at some point in the future you will see the results of that growth, of that transformation.

How can we apply this to modern life?

What I love about this teaching is that when you look closer, you realise that it is very relevant in today’s world. In 2019 there are challenges facing us on all levels; from political & racial division, to the climate crisis, to the pay gap. Tapas teaches us to face up to these problems & lean in to the difficult conversations which surround them. It teaches us, on an individual level, to keep showing up and doing the best we can do, even if the problem seems larger than you. If we all keep showing up, the change will happen.

On a personal level so many of us are suffering from stress & mental health problems, or are faced with the endless comparison of our lives with those of our friends - or worse! - strangers on social media so much so that we feel paralysed by the fear that we are not enough. Tapas teaches us to lean in to the discomfort of our fears, to discuss them, to experience and allow our emotions, rather than to dull them or drown them out, it teaches us to be vulnerable, which as Brene Brown teaches us, is what leads to connection, courage, resilience & growth.

Finally, and most importantly, it teaches us to show up every day afresh & anew to do our best. Which is all we can ever do.

When we think about discipline & austerity we immediately think about negative images, boredom and a lack of joy, but actually when you look deeper, the practice of Tapas is positive, exciting & incredibly worthwhile for not just our personal growth, but the growth of humanity around us! So next time you really don’t feel like going to your yoga class, practice some Tapas & go anyway….you won’t regret it :)


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