Tapas is part of Classical Yoga that is often translated as heat. As a result we find an infinite number of HOT yoga classes around town and the nation. While heat in a yoga class can dissolve sluggishness and release toxins from the physical body, Tapas has a much deeper and more powerful application to practice. It has the power to transform us into who we know ourselves to be.
Many yogis first encounter the idea of Tapas in the second chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, where he describes the eight limbs of yoga. These limbs are an intricate network of supportive practices that help an aspirant attain self-knowledge and union. Considered the mild path, it includes Tapas as one of its observances.
Tapas is also found earlier in the Sutras when it describes the slightly more intense path of Kriya Yoga. Kriya Yoga provides fewer supportive practices – only three -- which results in a more intensified practice.
In both levels of practice, Tapas refers to the heat generated from strengthening our inner resolve to expand past our limitations. It is not about a hot room, but rather about the heat generated from the friction of strengthening our psychic muscles.
We need a strong physical body in yoga, but more importantly, we need a strong psyche. According to foundations of classical yoga, each of us came here to do something specific. Our soul has a purpose. Yet, most of us have forgotten what this is, and in its place developed a "sense of self" based on our culture, parents, beliefs and other potentially limiting behaviors. This understanding of ourselves become our habits, and our habits become our lives.
In Yoga, as we learn to reconnect to our inner teacher, the one who remembers our purpose and can see beyond these limitations, we need to expand past our habits. Yet these habits run deep. They have caved grooves in our brains and it's often much easier to fall into the habits than into the potential discomfort growing pains of evolution.
So to create new grooves, the ones that take us out of the habits that don’t serve our original purpose and into the ones that do, we must develop a sort of psychic strength. And just like we sweat from the heat of working out the body, we will “sweat” psychically as we strengthen these muscles.
THIS is what the sutras mean by Tapas. They call it “spiritual effort” and it is a foundation for practice. It is the heat that is generated when we don't indulge the mental temper-tantrum. It is the effort to say no to what does not serve and yes to what does, the effort to stay focused on the anchor of our true self and not be swayed by the small self. Tapas will make you sweat, even when you are sitting still. It will take you from who you think you are, to who you are meant to become. And eventually, this effort will become effortless, and we will know we have are in a state of Yoga.