One of the Niyamas, or commitments, that we strive for in the tradition of Ashtanga yoga is called tapas, which literally translates to “heat.”
Physically, we create heat in our bodies through yoga asana, warming up our muscles so we can build strength and melt away tension. But the philosophy behind tapas is actually similar to that behind asceticism. Tapas is the practice of intense self-discipline that helps us attain stronger willpower.
Simply stated, tapas is doing something that you do not want to do that will have a positive effect on your life. When the desires of the mind are withheld through the use of willpower, an internal “fire” is cultivated. This fire illuminates our mental impurities and burns them away. Ancient yogis have learned that the practice of tapas can create more spiritual energy and lead to enlightenment.
Physically, tapas can be created through holding poses longer than we want to until we experience a sense of breakthrough in our self-imposed limits. Spiritually, tapas may be birthed through abstaining from an addiction, and the realization that you are stronger than your desires. Tapas transforms us through this purification, bringing conscious awareness and control over our unconscious impulses.
Just as the season of winter, where trees shed their old leaves, focus their energy inward and prepare to transform in the spring, we must also harness our energy to bring light to those behaviors that are not serving us. Through this practice, we build the strength willpower to become more dedicated to our practice of yoga.