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Tapas: Mental Discipline, Creating Routine and Structure in Life

By Samantha Case

How many times have you or someone you’ve known been so excited to integrate change in your life just to find yourself back in the same habits or patterns a week or two later? This is a classic scenario at the turn of the New Year when people commit to a resolution and then wonder what happened when their motivation falls away weeks or months later.

This is because true change often requires experiencing a phase of discomfort. This discomfort rises from the tension between our desire for change and the power of our deeply ingrained habits. When people begin to experience this discomfort, they may quickly release their goal and regress into those old patterns.

However, they will be able to persevere and accomplish their goals by cultivating the power of tapas, or self-discipline, into their lives.

Samskaras – The Ruts In Our Lives

In Yoga, the term samskara refers to the unsupportive habits and thought patterns that have formed deep ruts in our lives. They’re the powerful patterns that people easily fall back into after making a New Years resolution.

Some people understand samskaras as ingrained tendencies that are carried from life to life through reincarnation. Other people believe that samskaras are developed in this lifetime. Either way, samskaras are simply conditioned habits and patterns (both in thought and behavior) that prevent us from accessing our higher self.

Samskaras are the ruts, or the grooves, that we tend to get caught in. Like a trail in the forest that develops from being walked over and over again, samskaras are well-worn habits and patterns in our lives. The tendency to get caught in our samskaras is strong because their paths are deep. But a new path can always be formed by choosing to step off the old one and walk, over and over again, in a new direction. Tapas is the force that sustains this difficult journey and encourages us toward change.

Tapas 101

All minor and major accomplishments that humans and societies have experienced throughout history haven’t been without the energy of tapas. Meaning “to heat or burn up” in Sanskrit, tapas is the fire within that motivates us toward change and progress. It’s the reason we brush our teeth even when we’re not feeling like it and why we strive to integrate new habits into our lives.

Tapas is one of the niyamas in the Eight Limbs of Yoga and can be used as a tool for spiritual growth. It acts as a steady fire that slowly melts away our samskaras. Without tapas, we wouldn’t have the self-discipline that shifts long-held habits. It fuels our commitment to keep moving forward even when the desire to stop is strong. This inner drive allows energy to flow in our lives and propels us to expand as human beings.

Discipline naturally builds routine and structure in our lives. We all need both these things to work toward our goals and live a life we truly desire. The most fulfilling things we experience in our lives and in ourselves typically come to fruition by building on the momentum that routine and structure generates.

Discipline on the Spiritual Path

When first embarking on the spiritual path, one learns early on the important role that tapas plays along the journey. The paths of Yoga and Ayurveda can be fully experienced when one develops strong tapas to help one achieve anything beyond what’s comfortable and familiar. If tapas doesn’t burn brightly within, one would never be able to persevere through uncomfortable sensations, be motivated to try difficult things, or grow as a person.

Forming a new habit is difficult and consistent work, and it requires strength. The process of working through our samskaras often involves experiencing the discomfort of two contrasting desires: the desire for the old habit and the desire for change. We need tapas to help us choose change over routine. We need it to support our transition from living with our lower intellect to living with our higher intellect.

Tapas and Ayurveda support one another toward self transformation. Tapas supports our efforts to integrate Ayurvedic habits in our lives, and the gifts received from those habits (clarity, health, stamina) continue to strengthen and refine the vitality of tapas in our lives.

Tapas with Love

The way we apply tapas in our lives is just as important as whether we do at all.

Just as you have to skillfully handle a fire to prevent it from getting out of control, you must approach the flames of tapas with awareness to avoid the traps of punishment. Self-discipline is nourishing only when it comes from a place of love rather than abuse. If you approach self-discipline with a sense of punishment it can induce feelings of shame and guilt, which will only encourage you to regress back to old patterns.

Punishment of self is rooted in the belief that we are bad or shameful beings, which goes against the teachings of Yoga. Instead, tapas is the force that helps us return back to our innate goodness–the pure Self.

The Yoga Master Swami Satchidananda translated tapas as an acceptance of the pains that lead to purification. The pain is the discomfort of habit formation, and our self-discipline is an acceptance of that discomfort on the path toward our greatest good. This perspective supports the intention of practicing discipline from a place of compassion.

How to Build Tapas

  • When you’re feeling stuck or resistant, don’t avoid those feelings by staying busy. Instead, find a time to sit still for ten minutes, as you would in meditation. Be completely still. You’ll likely feel restless, which is great. Use this sense of restlessness to start the spark that’ll ignite tapas. Sitting still can create heat and internal motivation. Once the 10 minutes is over, see if you can funnel that restlessness immediately into an activity you’ve been resisting (for example your yoga practice, a chore, or a project).

  • Practice compassion and patience. Notice your motivation. Are you trying to motivate yourself with negative self talk? Do you want to eat better because you hate your body, or is it because you have compassion for yourself and want to nourish your body with nutrients? Simply notice your thoughts toward yourself without judging them. Can you instead replace those thoughts with patience, kindness, and gentleness toward yourself? Maybe this practice is the first habit you start with to build tapas.

  • Start small! If you find that you want to have a regular yoga practice but you’re struggling to find the motivation to do it, get curious about your expectations. Are you expecting yourself to practice for an hour every day? Your expectations might be too high. Begin by building a really small fire. Can you instead get on your mat for 5 minutes a day? You’d be surprised how powerful small choices can be.

Small Habits for Big Change

The flame of tapas is slow and steady, and it takes time to build in the same way it requires patience to start a fire. There must be kindling before the flames start. We gather kindle by making small choices on a regular basis that move us closer toward the person we want to be. Overtime, these choices add up, igniting and strengthening the flames of tapas or the energy of discipline.

Research by B.J. Fogg, a Behavior Scientist at Stanford University and the author of Tiny Habits, teaches us that the secret to effective habit change is starting with a really small habit and building on it over time. He says that growing a habit is like growing a plant, and you must first start small with a seed. Habit formation works by starting with a tiny behavior, finding a good spot in your daily routine for it, and then nourishing it consistently.

For example, let’s look at how the tiny habit technique can be applied to the goal of meditating more. First you might commit to taking one deep and intentional breath first thing when you wake up. Do this until it feels established, and then see if you can expand that to three breaths. Overtime, you’ll gradually build a strong meditation practice that grows deep roots in your life.

“Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.” – Ovid

Habits For the Higher Self

Below are a few suggestions for goals you may wish to work toward, but keep the approach of tiny habits in your mind. You don’t climb a staircase by jumping from the first step to the last; you get there by taking one step at a time. With whatever goals you choose to have for yourself, explore what it might look like to take one step at a time.

I encourage you to set an intention for yourself this week. What is one small thing you can incorporate into your life to help you build a new, healthy habit? It takes dedication and consistency to build tapas, but it’s the consistency that brings reward and slowly melts the barriers, or samskaras, that keep us from freedom.

As you practice discipline on your journey of experiencing your higher self, keep with you the reminder that the recipe for true and lasting change is compassion for yourself combined with patience, trust, and consistency.

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