Fuel Your Willpower to Transform with Tapas

The secret to making change stick when things get tough? Harnessing your discomfort and transforming it into personal power through your yoga practice. Here’s how.

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Fierce Pose, a.k.a. Chair Pose HEATHER LILLESTON

If nixing bad habits were easy, we’d all be perfect. The secret to making change stick when things get tough? Harnessing your discomfort and transforming it into personal power through your yoga practice. Here’s how.

In the yogic tradition, a key to following through with your intentions is tapas, or self-discipline. Derived from the Sanskrit root tap, which means “to heat,” tapas is about burning off your bad habits through restraint and even purification. It’s all about lighting a fire under—
and within—you.

Sometimes, tapas can literally be felt as heat in the body—like the burn of a deep Utkatasana (Chair Pose) that transforms weakness into strength. On a psychological level, tapas can be interpreted more metaphorically: It’s the friction or resistance that arises when we go against the overwhelming momentum of our ingrained habits. “Tapas is the discomfort generated when one habitual pattern rubs up against a new one,” says Nicolai Bachman, a Sanskrit scholar based in Denver and author of The Path of the Yoga Sutras: A Practical Guide to the Core of Yoga.

See also 10-Minute Tapas Yoga Sequence

The yoga greats, including B.K.S. Iyengar, knew the power of the seemingly simple concept that self-discipline allows for growth and transformation. As Iyengar wrote in his seminal book Light on Yoga: “The whole science of character building may be regarded as a practice of tapas.” The good news is that you can easily tap into tapas, which is one of the five niyamas, or principles that guide behavior in yoga philosophy. For example, perhaps 2017 is the year you want to start a daily morning meditation practice. The first few weeks or even months, there may be days you wake up and immediately hit snooze. But the more you force yourself to get up, sit on your meditation cushion, and reap the benefits of your practice—despite the friction between your new habit and the old, less demanding one of sleeping in—the easier it becomes and the sooner the new, healthier habit sticks. The same persistent process, always applied gently, can also help us shed undesirable patterns like negative self-talk, binge eating, and unhealthy ingrained reactions, says Marla McMahon, a clinical psychologist and yoga teacher in Sacramento, California. “Being able to be with that suffering—ultimately, that’s where we grow,” says McMahon. “I see growth and transformation when clients are able to put tapas into daily practice even if I don’t use that term specifically. And it does get easier the more you practice it.”

There are few better tools than asana practice to help you hone your tapas training. Holding a difficult-for-you pose on your yoga mat can prepare you for staying with discomfort in your daily life, helping you to launch into serious self-study and not be controlled by that which makes you uncomfortable. (“Discomfort” in this case refers to situations in which you’re not in imminent danger, not extreme situations like abuse.)

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“When we practice tapas on the mat, we practice sitting with whatever sensations and conversations arise for us, without running away,” says Heather Lilleston, a Los Angeles–based yoga teacher and co-founder of Yoga for Bad People, an organization that hosts international retreats that aim to help you shift your perspective. For instance, for a yogi with tight hips, staying in Pigeon Pose for an extra 10 breaths may mean experiencing a truly transformative hip stretch. For a practitioner of intense Ashtanga Yoga, moving through the discomfort of a slow, restorative class, knowing that it will eventually breed clarity and calm, could be considered tapas training. “Sometimes what we need to see is that if we stay, we are actually OK—that we do have the strength and are able to get through it, and in that way the world slowly becomes less scary,” says Lilleston.

Next, Lilleston offers a heat-
building practice to help you create tapas—physically, mentally, on the mat, beyond the studio walls, and on into 2017.

Get the practice: A Tapas-Building Sequence to Fuel Willpower