I have had a notice stuck on my fridge for eight or nine years, so I don’t remember where I read or heard the words, but they were said – or written – by Swami Satyananda, the founder of Satyananda yoga. The notice says:
As one who is painfully aware of her many short-comings, these words strike me as particularly relevant.
“Austerity” is a common interpretation for tapasya, but, for me, the word austerity has under-tones of severe hardship and self-flagellation. It suggests that tapasya is all about cold showers, hard beds and bland food.
If you were to go to the motherland of yoga, and experience it in its traditional sense, it would indeed seem austere and ultra-disciplined!
When I was in an ashram in India, we were expected to be out of bed, showered and dressed by 4.30am and all the cleaning done before the 6.00am breakfast. Showers only had cold water – even in winter. I thought that was pretty severe!
However, for those of us who are not living in ashrams, and who are trying to live a yogic lifestyle in the West, tapasya is more about setting up a routine to create discipline to develop a strength of mind, body and spirit. It doesn’t have to be the severe conditions of cold showers and hard beds – it could be creating a discipline whereby you ensure that you go for that walk every morning, regardless of weather.
The austerity of your discipline is really dependent on you.
My personal practice of tapasya is waking up at first light, giving thanks and gratitude to the universe, then chanting, meditating and doing asanas before I have breakfast. This discipline of doing the same things every morning gives me peace of mind – it’s like I step into the rhythm of the universe, and the day seems to flow forward from that point.
Practising tapasya – living within the structure of discipline – can help us make changes in our lives. For me, this is very obvious when I consider my close friend, who recently left the Mangrove Mountain ashram after living there for three years.
I asked her if she was aware of the changes in herself over the last three years. She replied “Yes. Three years ago I was a frightened little bird. Now I know who I really am and what I can do”. Being very modest, she didn’t say what was plain to see – she is now a tower of strength: orgnising and running courses, teaching classes of up to a hundred people, cooking meals for a hundred or more people and a zillion other things that ashram residents do.
Some people might see life at an ashram as austere, but for my friend and many others, the discipline allows the inner strength to grow, which is life changing.
Swami Satyananda says that tapasya is a “process of purification in which you make yourself more seasoned, more mature”. 1 The process of purification probably differs from person to person, depending on each person’s particular addictions and habits. We easily become addicted – or habituated – to obeying the demands of one or more of the senses – to coffee, shopping, exercise, or TV. However, on some level, we all know that letting the senses rule our lives does not bring happiness.
Hence the need for tapasya – self-discipline.
Georg Feuerstein says that the practice of tapasya is meant to kindle the “inner fire” and develop our will-power. For all those of us who have tried changing our behaviour pattern – eating less chocolate, keeping the credit card in the wallet while shopping, reading a book instead of turning on the TV, going for a walk in nature instead of another work-out at the gym – will-power is needed to cut through the deeply-rooted behaviour patterns. Tapasya, self-discipline, is the answer.
Tapasya is from the root, “tap” which means “to burn”; so tapasya can be a fiery discipline – the “fiercely focused, constant intense commitment necessary to burn off the impediments that keep us from being in the true state of yoga (union with the universe)”. 2
Tapasya can be a powerful tool for self-transformation, but “discipline” should not be equated with “difficult”.
Swami Satchidananda (one of the first yogis to establish yoga in the US) pointed out that “Tapasya is self-discipline, not self torture”. 3 Even Patanjali himself said that it is not about destroying your health, but about perfecting the body, and being aware that tapasya does not have to be solemn or serious.
Tapasya is an aspect of inner wisdom that encourages us to take up something that is an achievable personal challenge. Maybe going to bed a little earlier at night in order to get up earlier in the morning to go for a walk or do meditation or asana practice, is something to which we can apply tapasya. As we practise this self-discipline, gradually a new and healthier behaviour pattern is formed. Then we can use tapasya to burn up another negative thought or behaviour pattern. In this way, we are using a tried and trusted process to bring our lives into harmony, peace and ultimate happiness.
Find a discpline that you like – creating a burning enthusiasm – so that you can do it anytime. It’s not about aiming higher and higher – “Hey, I climbed Mount Everest!” – but about a repeated practice that allows for that inner growth and eventual bliss.
1. Swami Satyananda Saraswati: http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1981/emay81/swatap.shtml
2. Judith Lasater: https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/cultivate-your-connections
3. Christine Malossi: https://www.yogauonline.com/yoga-basics/third-niyama-tapas-inner-fire