This is part eight of a 10-part series exploring each of the Yamas and Niyamas to discover how we can incorporate them both on and off the mat for a deeper, richer life of yoga.
Legend has it that there once was a bird that lived for over a thousand years: the phoenix. Every morning without fail, at dawn, it would sing a beautiful song—so beautiful that the Sun God would stop his chariot to listen. It was the only bird of its kind in the whole world, and in order to give birth to a new phoenix, it had to die.
When this time came, the phoenix would build itself a nest of aromatic wood, set it on fire, and allow itself to be consumed by the flames. From the pile of ashes, a new phoenix would rise. Recognizing the treasure of its former life, the young and powerful phoenix would embalm the ashes of its predecessor in an egg of myrrh, and fly to the city of the sun to deposit the egg on the altar of the Sun God.*
Tapas, our third Niyama in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, asks us to become the phoenix. The Sanskrit word literally means heat, and is often translated as burning zeal, spiritual enthusiasm, catharsis, and self-discipline. It speaks to building a life of such passion for love and truth, that we become willing to do whatever it takes to create metaphorical nests, and set fire to our old selves.
We don’t have to wait thousands of years like the phoenix to commit ourselves to the flames. We can emerge more brilliant with every choice we make…
Tapas is no joke. Of all our Yamas and Niyamas, tapas for many people can be the most painful. It asks us to take the disciplines of yoga: to serve, to be kind, to speak truth, to purify thoughts, to meditate, to practice asana… And to commit to those as a regular practice—our sadhana.
In committing we have to go head to head, or rather—heart to head—with our egos, and it can feel like a battle of epic proportions. Tapas is our trusty steed. When our egos tell us we should stay in bed rather than get up and meditate, it will be tapas that drags us kicking and screaming out from under the duvet and onto the cushion. When we cannot hold Paripurna Navasana for one more moment, it is tapas that tells us: “We can do it. Just 10 more breaths…” When we are more set on being right than being loving, it is tapas that keeps our lips shut.
The question is, how do we overcome years spent mindlessly following our urges? The answer is: by cultivating enthusiasm. And an enthusiasm that comes from the burning desire of the heart—not the mind.
It’s hard to be enthusiastic about getting out of bed to practice yoga if it’s simply because we think we have to. Tapas is not interested in what the mind thinks. Indeed, if we are committed to yoga because we think it will make us look good, then sadly this enthusiasm only reinforces ego. Likewise, if we are committed to quitting sugar because we read an article that suggested we should, well, that kind of motivation is more like a New Year’s resolution—it lacks the heartfelt, burning passion that will see it last more than a month.
Like the phoenix which sings every day at dawn, we just keep turning up.
Instead, we must practice what Krishna calls in the Bhagavad Gita, pure tapas—a tapas of “zeal” and “sincerity.” And to do so we have to become deeply intimate with the true desire in our hearts. We already know what that is. We are following the eight-fold path because of it…
When the bed is more comfortable than the mat, we remind ourselves that our burning intention is to be free, that our heart’s desire is to know love—and therefore we get up. And the next day, when it’s colder, and we’ve had a bad night’s sleep, we remind ourselves again of our soul’s yearning to serve the world, and we get up. Like the phoenix which sings every day at dawn, we just keep turning up. Not because we think we should, but because it is beautiful, and we are committed to doing so—for love, for growth—because we cannot not.
The beauty of pure tapas is that when we make a choice that aligns with this fire inside, we fan the flames, so that the fire burns brighter, and the next time the choice becomes easier. We don’t have to wait thousands of years like the phoenix to commit ourselves to the flames. We can emerge more brilliant with every choice we make to follow the path to truth.
With practice we can see that there never was the epic battle we imagined between heart and head. All that we have given up has brought us closer to what we truly want. There was no real sacrifice. And like the new phoenix, which collects and embalms the ashes of the old to present to the Sun God, we can learn to look at that which we give up with this kind of reverence and gratitude. For as Sufi Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee says, it is thanks to being presented with things to let go, that we become, in our entirety, “wood for the fire of love.”
4 Ways to Put Tapas Into Practice
1. Stay Focused on Your Intention
This is helpful when we want to stay committed to reminding ourselves of our heart’s desire behind a decision. It means finding your own inner words of encouragement—your own inner cheer from tapas. Perhaps it is “Because love is all that matters” or “I am committed to truth.” If your struggle is getting out of bed, place a note next to your pillow. If it’s the fridge that tests your commitment, post it there.
2. Don’t Wait
So often we are waiting to make the commitment. We are waiting for someone else to come along and inspire us, or to get some burst of energy that sets us on a more dedicated path. But as music critic Ernest Newman points out: “Beethoven, Wagner, Bach, and Mozart sat down day after day to the job in hand with as much regularity as an accountant settles down each day to his figures. They didn’t waste time waiting for inspiration.” Rather they became inspired because they sat down. Just do it.
3. Take Small Steps
Setting lofty aims like quitting cold turkey or practicing one hour of yoga a day can be our undoing. It is often better to choose something less demanding, because each time we renege on a commitment, we are only reinforcing the idea that we cannot achieve transformation. So start small and build your fire. Cutting out one cigarette a day is worth it. Giving $1 to charity a week is worth it. Meditating for 10 minutes a day is worth it. Three rounds of Surya Namaskar each morning is worth it. After all, think of all the small steps you have already taken to get here.
4. On the Mat
I have an orange and yellow yoga mat—it reminds me that each time we step onto our mat we are stepping into a fire. We are saying: I’m ready to burn the toxins from my body; I’m ready to burn away the impurities of my mind; I’m ready to burn the karma of my previous actions; and I’m ready to let myself be destroyed and reborn in this practice.
Of course, we don’t need an orange mat. Our intention is everything. If we approach our practice with a deep and pure desire for transformation, then transformation is what we will have. And our trusty steed tapas will help us stay on the mat through the sweat and the tears.
Manipura chakra postures can help us fuel and build fire. Try Utkatasana (chair), Navasana (upward boat), and rocking Dhanurasana (the bow). Indeed by including these challenging asanas within our practice we can spark the endurance to get through the postures that follow.
And finally, in meditation, as we sit down in our nest, we can draw on our commitment to samadhi by holding our hands in vajrapradama mudra—the mudra of unshakable strength—and commit our old selves to the flames.
Join us next week as we explore the fourth of our five Niyamas, svadhyaya: self-study.
* Adapted from Tina Garnet’s text: The Phoenix in Egyptian, Arab, and Greek mythology as quoted here.
Helen Avery is a Section Editor at Wanderlust Media, working on the Vitality and Wisdom channels on wanderlust.com. She is a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, minister-in-training, and full-time dog walker of Millie.