When I sat down to draft this article, I found myself with a case of writer’s block. I was stuck between conflicting ideas, encroaching deadlines, style decisions, rabbit holes of research, and my own inner critic. The core of the piece was buried somewhere in the mix. I tried clearing my schedule to focus. I sat at my desk. Nothing.
Feeling frustrated, I noticed that a heat-building asana class was being offered by one of my teachers online. Though the clock was ticking on this project, I decided to sign up. For an hour, I held postures, breathed deeply, and sweated. Knots melted out of my physical body and thinking mind. When I sat back down to write after practice, ideas flowed more freely than they had in weeks.
The effort I made on my mat is an example of Tapah or Tapas—the productive heat that helps to clean your conscience, bring you clarity in body and mind, and move you forward toward your goals. For me, Tapas illuminates yoga as true union: The purifying heat bridges my willingness and unwillingness, reopens limitless flow through finite challenges, and reminds me that serenity can exist within effort and with practice.
Heat as purification
Using high heat for purification is an ancient practice. Since the Middle Ages, molten gold has been refined over a hot flame, a process known as cupellation. Impurities in the ore are burned out by the high temperatures, yielding a noble metal—one that is pure, strong, and impervious to corrosion.
Cultivating heat in your life—either physically or metaphorically—offers a similar kind of purification. In Sanskrit, there are various words for different kinds of spiritual and physical heat and fire. For example, tejas is considered healing heat that exists in your body. Agni is a rising flame that gives off heat and light, and is also the energy of rising consciousness. Tapas, one of the niyamas (observances) in the eight limbs of yoga, is often defined as a burning heat for discipline, purification, and the dissolution of obstacles.
At times, our negative thought patterns, difficult circumstances, or even self-imposed stagnation keep us from being in touch with our individual spirit and the realm of pure consciousness. Generating Tapas purifies the mind and body, allows you to reconnect with your pure nature within, and helps you to clear obstacles from your path.
Tapas in practice
According to Swami Satchidananda’s translation of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, you can cultivate Tapas physically, mentally, and verbally through pranayama, fasting, movement, and speech. These practices can bring moderate, productive pain—like the discomfort from an antiseptic cleaning a wound—but the invaluable byproduct is insight.
Just be careful not to practice Tapas to a damaging extreme. Pushing yourself beyond your limits in asana practice, adopting an extreme diet, or being rigid in your interpretation of philosophy is not the goal. “Heat as self-discipline is an aid to self-progress, whereas self-torture is an obstacle,” Satchidananda explains. In other words, true Tapas is born from self-love, to clear your mind and body so you can follow your inner guidance.
Here are three ways to practice Tapas in a balanced way—without burning out.
Generate heat through action
Start in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), resting your focus on a point ahead as you bend your knees into Chair Pose. Raise your arms high, just ahead of your ears, and actively press your palms together. Take 5 cycles of Ujjayi breath. Next, press down into your right foot, lean your torso forward, and lift your left leg back into Warrior Pose III for 5 cycles of breathing. You may extend your arms out like wings or bring your palms to your heart.
Finally, maintaining drishti (gaze), step your lifted foot far back onto the floor or mat, bend your front knee, and lift your arms into a High Lunge. (You may also lean your torso forward, bring palms to touch at heart center, and twist to the right for a Revolved Lunge.) Hold your position for 5 cycles of breath, then return to Mountain Pose. Repeat this three-pose sequence on the other side.
Inhale, exhale warmth
When you need to flow toward a personal or creative goal, Bhastrika (Bellows Breath) can help clear the mind. Sit comfortably on a chair, or cross-legged on the floor or on a cushion. Place your palms on your navel. Close your eyes and breathe in deeply then out fully, feeling the breath move. On the next inhalation through the nose, stop the breath halfway and exhale sharply, drawing your navel to your spine.
Repeat 27 times—short inhalations halfway into the belly and forceful exhalations quickly pulling your navel to the spine. When you’ve finished, slow down the breath gradually until you exhale completely. Breathe in and out fully and comfortably, noticing heat in the body. Repeat 1–2 more times.
Break unhealthy habits
According to Satchidananda, fasting from unhealthy foods and drinks to clear the system of toxins is a healthy way to conjure heat. But abstaining from eating is only one form of fasting. You can also make a commitment to remove poisonous speech that might inflict harm on others. Or you might bring attention to your thought patterns, fasting from harsh or critical judgment of others and yourself.
Breaking unproductive habits often takes painful effort—the challenge can leave us with the fiery sensation of Tapas that we accept as self-realization and forward movement.
See also: Break Bad Habits Patanjali’s Way
Rina Deshpande, EdM, E-RYT 500, is a teacher, writer, and yoga and mindfulness researcher. Learn more about yoga’s rich philosophy with Rina’s course “The Culture & Practice of the Yama.” This on-demand course, a $300 value, is included with your Outside+ membership.