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.