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Tapas - austerities

TAPAS: Austerity


Self imposed hardship or austerity has long been a tradition of many religious disciplines.  The hermits of Medieval Europe wearing hair shirts, living in caves and even fasting for religious festivals have been and still are indicators of religious striving.  In the modern world many of the more extreme forms of self flagellation, denial and self imposed suffering have declined, but there is still a place for denial of physical and mental pleasures for the serious seeker for spiritual growth.  In yoga such a seeker is called a `tapasvi`.


`Tapas` is the name given to the yoga practice of austerity and can be translated as `inner heat`.   Tapas may be used to control the sexual energy and to prevent its wastage, but also to develop mental strength and direction.  Some austerities are deliberately painful and physically damaging.  This indicates the attitude of seeing the body as a piece of filth which must be controlled.  Other tapas however can be seen as an attempt to bring the senses under control so that the body and mind can be made stronger and healthier – the temple of the Divine.


The result of some tapas can be to change attitudes and remove limitations.  Thus walking barefoot may at first be painful, and indeed socially embarrassing but in time becomes a pleasurable experience bringing us into a state of greater awareness of the earth we belong to, and freeing us from questionable social attitudes. 


Note that another meaning of this term `tapas` is that of `God Realisation`.  In practice of course this is the principle aim of yoga so we could say the use of tapas as an austerity is just to achieve that realisation. Tapas is the third Niyama – discipline, listed in Patanjali`s (and others)  astanga (eight limbs) of yoga.


In the traditional practices of yoga some of these tapas are very severe.  Some are practiced only rarely today but others are still commonplace such as walking barefoot.

Sadhus in India can regularly be seen walking barefoot on the stoniest and dustiest of roads.


Examples of easier tapas:

Going barefoot  - in all weathers and conditions.

Nudity  – or as close as the law allows. Digambari babas are seen particularly at festivals. 

Dietary restrictions – avoiding meat or alcohol.

Rising before dawn for meditation.

Sleeping on the floor.

Washing/showering in cold water.

             these can be adopted by anyone for a specific period of time.  Christians traditionally give up something during the period of Lent.

Barefoot tapas in the snow.



Severe Austerities:


Wearing ashes – the vibhuti of the followers of Shiva.  Sadhus cover the whole body each day, or create patterns of three stripes of white ash on the forehead, neck, breast, upper and lower arms, around the navel, genitals and legs.


Jata – allowing the hair to grow without cutting.  In some traditions the initiate is shaved to become as a baby.  After that the jata is only cut at the death of his/her guru.  Other sects maintain a shaven head at all times.


Khareshwari -  the tapas of standing for long periods of time suspended by a sling.


Urdhvabahu – keeping one arm raised vertically (usually the right).  An ek-bahu is a baba who has lost the use of one arm completely.


Tanga-tora – the ritual `breaking` of the penis of the sadhu.  This is apparently   incorporated in some initiation rites but only symbolically!!


Lingasana – lifting heavy weights tied to the penis.


Chabi – twisting the penis around a stick or staff.


Nandieswara – from Chabi bringing the male genitals backwards between the legs by stepping over the stick.


Lohalanari – or kathia – wearing a wooden or metal chastity belt.  This may be reduced to wearing rings or similar around the penis as a symbol of this tapas.


Kara-lingi – dragging a heavy ball and chain attached to the penis.


           These penile tapas are designed to eliminate the use of the penis physically as a sexual organ, and to demonstrate the power of the yogi to sublimate his sexual interests.  Bramacharya – celibacy is one of the yama of Patanjali.


Tapas may not be a popular aspect of our yoga but it is worth while considering whether the comfort and easy life we expect today can also be hindering our spiritual progress.  The practise of pilgrimage to a holy site may take on a different and added value if we take the time and trouble to walk the last mile or two rather than arriving at the church/temple door in an air-conditioned car.


Derek Osborn                                          2996 03

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