Ashtanga Adaptability,  Teaching Ashtanga,  Uncategorized,  Yoga Philosophy,  Yoga Sutras

Burn, Baby, Burn

Tapas is not as popular as it used to be. Tapas the food is popular and quite delicious. Austerity in yoga, not so much. This generation is more about the yoga high, cute leggings, green smoothies, great selfies and good hair. “The Secret” has told us that whatever our heart desires, we should focus on it and get it.  Decadence is in. Austerity is out.

Is there a place for tapas in this generation other than in these few verses in the Yoga Sutras?

2: 1 Source: English translation of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati)
Yoga in the form of action (kriya yoga) has three parts: 1) training and purifying the senses (tapas), 2) self-study in the context of teachings (svadhyaya), and 3) devotion and letting go into the creative source from which we emerged (ishvara pranidhana).

2:32 Source: English translation of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati)
Cleanliness and purity of body and mind (shaucha), an attitude of contentment (santosha), ascesis or training of the senses (tapas), self-study and reflection on sacred words (svadhyaya), and an attitude of letting go into one’s source (ishvarapranidhana) are the observances or practices of self-training (niyamas), and are the second rung on the ladder of Yoga.

2:43 Source: English translation from Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (B.K.S. Iyengar)
Self-discipline (tapas) burns away impurities and kindles the sparks of divinity.

What is Tapas?

Practices that burn up mental and physical impurities and attachments

Modern day examples of tapas a.k.a  tapas that will only get you the side eye

-Changing your diet for your yoga practice

-Getting up early for practice

-Practicing difficult poses, meditative techniques and pranayamas

-Living simply (non greed/aparaigraha, non stealing/asteya)

-Vegetarianism ( non harming/ahimsa)


 Old school examples of tapas a.k.a tapas that might get you locked up

-Lifting one arm in the sky until it withers away

-Never sitting….ever

-Hanging heavy weights from your penis

-Sleeping in graveyards and near funeral pyres

Please, note, I am not telling you to do any of this stuff.

What is the purpose of tapas?

According to the verses above, tapas

trains and purifies the senses 

burns away impurities and kindles the sparks of divinity


How does never sitting…ever and any of the other side eye behaviors above train and purify the senses, burn away impurities and kindle divinity?

Gather around. Let me tell you a story. Years ago, if I went more than a few hours without eating solid food, I would get physically sick. Not kidding you. You could ask my husband but you don’t have his phone number.  Seriously though.  Me and my hubby would be on the way to dinner. If we got caught in traffic, I would be sick by the time we got there. No lie. I always used to eat before yoga in the morning. If I didn’t, I would be light headed and I would not be able to finish.  As a matter of fact, I planned all my practices around food. Not kidding. Physically sick. Stomach hurting. Pain.

One year, my boss and a few other people, did the Master Cleanse. The Master Cleanse is when you drink fancy lemonade for 10 or more days to detox. Look it up on Google. Being the new age hippie that I am, a cleanse sounded like something I should be doing. So I did it.  No pain. No sickness. No light headedness. I practiced Ashtanga yoga. I taught yoga, at a hot yoga studio (100 degrees)  and I felt great. My hunger signals cut off in 48 hours.

The hunger sickness was a lie. The light headedness was a lie.  It was a story that took root so deep that my brain created pain to go with it.    After 48 hours, I was not hungry, however, I missed the emotional and social component that came with eating.   I missed the drug like effect that eating was.  Around the time, when I would normally eat, I felt a feeling of lose. The majority of my stories around eating were pure attachment. The Master Cleanse worked as a form of tapas to show me that.

Fast forward to now, I love eating. I picked that attachment back up quick and with no regrets. However, I do not get the hunger sickness or light headed anymore. I do not plan my yoga around food. I practice early in the morning without eating and without coffee. Yes. Without coffee.   I now practice intermittent fasting and I love it.  Look it up on Google. No, I am not wasting away. Look me up on Google.

Okay, I am not telling you to do this. Please, nutrition people, don’t write me.  The point of the story is that, tapas shows us where our attachments are, how they effect our lives and how they can be burned away..if we want.

So if you think back to some of the extreme examples of the “you will get locked up” variety of  tapas, that I am not condoning, it makes sense.  The first 3 teach the yogi that their body is not as important to their existence as they may have thought.  In the Sutras, this is spoken of as a by product of saucha/purity.

2:40 Source: English translation of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati)
Through cleanliness and purity of body and mind (shaucha), one develops an attitude of distancing, or disinterest towards one’s own body, and becomes disinclined towards contacting the bodies of others.

2:41 Source: English translation from Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (B.K.S. Iyengar)
When the body is cleansed, the mind purified and the senses controlled, joyful awareness needed to realize the inner self, also comes.

When the focus is taken off the body, more awareness is taken to the internal space.

Sleeping in graveyards, which I am not telling you to do, helps the yogi to get over the klesha of abhinivesha/fear of death (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2: 3-9)

For most of us, tapas of the side eye variety will do.

Going to bed early may not win you friends and dinner party invitations, but it may show you how much your self worth is tied to those invitations. It might show you who your friends are. Are people so interested in your beautiful self that they hang out with you at other times of the day or do they drop off the face of the earth? Are you okay being by yourself and with yourself?

Becoming vegetarian may awaken a sense of oneness and connection to all beings. Might

Living a minimalist lifestyle may reveal that, what you think you need, is a lie. It may decrease your reliance on “the system” and free up your time and resources for spiritual pursuits.

Practicing austerity for the sole purpose of deprivation or self harm is masochistic and violates Ahimsa, the yogic principle of non harming. Doing it so that others can see how “yogic” you are builds the ego that yoga is looking to decimate. Also not yoga. This is not tapas. Tapasya are tools used to uncover and break attachments.  Tapas is apart of the niyamas so they are important to the yogic path. However you choose to do tapas is personal. It could be as simple as getting off of Facebook or maybe you live in a cave in the Himalyas.  Do remember that, once a yogi is realized, they no longer need tapas or any other yogic technique for that matter. They can watch the Secret with no fear of attachment. LOL.

Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail