Tapas: Slowly Stoke the Fires of Motivation

When we apply the yogic concept of Tapas to healthy eating, we slowly burn away self-doubt and build up will power.

Emily Hightower is a past Wanderlust Festival presenter

This article is part of a series on applying yogic philosophy to food. Check out the previous articles on Brahmacharya, Ahimsa, Satya, AsteyaAparigrahaSaucha, and Santosha


Tapas, meaning “will power” in yoga, used to hover over me like a towering father figure, waving a judgmental finger at me every time I slipped off a diet or bailed on a yoga practice.

This made it hard to stick to changes. I had to shift this painful cycle of feeling like I lacked will power and that I was a failure, so I turned inward. I started trusting my body’s real needs and learned that a gentler approach could build the heat and pleasure of personal growth I was missing. My new Tapas is like a wise mountain woman holding a bow drill, ready to build a fire for the whole circle to enjoy.

Your body works for you all the time without your will. Your heart beats, pH gets balanced in the blood, and insulin manages blood sugar for you. We fight this natural will when we subject ourselves to restrictive diets. If you’re not feeding the body real nutrients throughout the day, it will wake you up to snack at midnight. If you skip breakfast and don’t bring healthy food to work, it will “force” you to grab a pastry and coffee on break because it needs energy. This isn’t a lack of will power, it’s a lack of tending to your own fire.

You have an ember within you that is your internal will power … This internal ember needs gentle tending to transform it into the blazing bonfire that feels like effortless, positive will power.

You have an ember within you that is your internal will power. It wants to do things that make you feel good, like going to yoga, eating vegetables, and going on bike rides. Your internal will can get snuffed out with enough perceived failures, making it harder to trust yourself. Starvation diets, harsh exercise programs, or misguided nutrition advice create these damaging pitfalls. Just the phrase “I will not eat sugar/snack/eat at night” is disempowering compared to “I will take care of myself/eat healing foods/move a little each day.” This internal ember needs gentle tending to transform it into the blazing bonfire that feels like effortless, positive will power. Here’s how to build it:

1. The Internal ‘Why’

First we set the bow drill to work. Why do you want to eat differently? If it’s to look better in smaller jeans, is that enough to keep you going? That external motivation usually ignites my rebel rather than my will power. Go deeper and ask yourself, “what do I want my body to feel like or be able to do?” or, “how will life be in five years if I stay the current course?” For some this means Type 2 Diabetes, or back surgery, or loss of sex drive. Those are more motivating than any subjective size you think you want to be. Once you find your personal reason for healing, you’ve got the ember. This is your internal “why,” without which all discipline is external and bound to snuff out over time.

2. The Slow Build

Now our baby ember needs a nest of tinder, the super flammable stuff that can’t help but catch onto this new spark. Your tinder encourages your motivation for change. If your internal why is “to feel good,” then go feel good right away. Get out on a walk, hop on your yoga mat, eat a gorgeous salad. Now you have a little fire started, but it’s still fragile.

Tapas means burning away self-doubt by showing up.

Stable fires need a safe place to grow. My fireplace has two doors and if I start with both doors open, the fire can’t focus its energy and dies out. Keep your flame close to your heart for now. Don’t let the energy dissipate by letting people who love you blow their own ideas or past projections over you. A sure way to overwhelm a baby fire is a family member kindly offering “don’t you want a salad instead of a slice of our pizza?” Instead, keep adding secret sticks of successful choices while you enjoy this new heat confidently rising around your heart.

When I keep just a tiny crack open in my fireplace doors, a focused beam of oxygen is pulled straight to my protected fire. The oxygen is like your intention. Focus it using a Sankalpa, a statement in present time that connects you to your new path. For example, if you start with “I want to stop eating junk food, feel better and be more energized,” you can make a more powerful Sankalpa of “I feel energized as I eat healing, nutrient-rich food.” Now that will light your way!

3. Enjoy the Fire

Now we’ll keep adding fuel and try not to add big logs until it’s nice and hot. This might not be the time to do a big cleanse, or take on a 40-day immersion. When I used to run half marathons, I would train and slowly build up to a point where not running felt bad. The large logs might be quitting sugar or saying no to more than one glass of wine so you can sleep soundly. If you keep eating colorful, living foods as basic sticks in your daily fire, some day the sugar habit might just burn away for you. Your bonfire is glowing, no force of will power needed to tackle that big log. And not a wagging finger in sight to make you question your internal mojo.

Tapas means burning away self-doubt by showing up. When we enjoy the fire but forget to go collect more wood, chop, sort, and organize ourselves around it, it won’t last. How many times have I eaten food that didn’t serve me because I just forgot to meal plan, shop, or cook? This takes work! And once we accept that it isn’t always easy, we can drop the resistance and just practice.

I love how whatever we show up for affects the other areas of our life. If you start a fire for healthy eating, let it burn for your benefit as it melts your doubts and warms all who surround you with its good energy.

We have two more Niyama, or personal practices, in this series. Stay tuned next month for the next one! If you’d like to learn more, please join me for a free Yoga of Food class online here.


emily-hightowerEmily Hightower founded Ondalu to empower people to make holistic decisions for their health. Her integrative programs have helped thousands of people including Wounded Warriors, Teens, and Women in Crisis using yoga, nutrition, and nature. Emily guides in person, on retreat, or by Skype and is based in Carbondale, Colorado, with her husband, son, chickens, and huge dog.