Playing with Fire: The Power of Tapas to Help Us Fulfill Our Intentions

Consider an intention you’d like to set for yourself. Maybe it’s meditating for 30 minutes a day. Or cutting out sugar for a month. Or taking five slow breaths the next time your partner says something that makes you mad.

Whatever your intention is, you set it because you know it will benefit your life—but you also know that you may have resistance when it comes to putting it into action. You will want to sleep in and not sit for your 30 minutes. You’ll go to a party and be tempted by a slice of cake. You’ll snap at your partner without thinking. And there you’ll be, back in the old groove.

In order to shift those long-held habits, you need to fuel the fire of tapas. In yoga philosophy, tapas is a yama—the action of restraint. In Sanskrit, it means “to burn”; it’s a fiery, intense energy that, when applied appropriately, helps melt away our conditioned responses (sometimes called samskaras) to reveal the parts of the self that are quieter, deeper, and more free. Swami Kripalu defined tapas as “friction produced by going against the grain.” We apply tapas in any moment when we consciously go against the grain of our conditioned way of being and engage in a new behavior or way of thinking. While it’s often an uncomfortable process, its fruits are great. Tapas allows us to fulfill our intentions and dreams.

But self-restraint can be destructive when it’s not applied properly. According to Yoganand Michael Carroll, Dean of the Kripalu School of Yoga, “The practice of tapas is often misunderstood and, if it isn't done appropriately, it can be mentally damaging and debilitating. The idea of disciplining ourselves, of making ourselves do something that at least part of us doesn't want to do, can trigger feelings of shame and guilt, or make us feel that we're undeserving and inadaquate.” How we practice tapas is just as important as whether or not we practice it at all. Fire well utilized can foster life, but, used unskillfully, can destroy. This is perhaps why another definition of tapas is “to cause pain.”

How can we harness the fire without getting burned? Both the yoga tradition and science offer insight into how to skillfully work with tapas.

Choose just one thing.

In a moment of deep inspiration, we can feel compelled to change our lives dramatically. Ever come off a yoga or meditation retreat full of intentions—and, a month or even a week later, you’re back to how things were?

According to researcher Roy Beaumeister, we have a limited amount of willpower, which is depleted through activities such as regulating our emotions, making decisions, and inhibiting impulses. Once we direct some of this willpower into one intention or task, we lose fuel for the next effort. If you set too many intentions, you risk diffusing the energy needed to produce change.

Start with just one intention and give all your energy to it. You’ll have a better chance of succeeding, and you’ll build your tapas muscle in the process.  

Practice self-compassion.

Setting out to change something about ourselves is difficult and often humbling. You’re trying to shift a habit you’ve had for a long time, and there will be moments when you will fail. That’s part of the practice. Tapas is not about forcing yourself into change or beating yourself up when you can’t do it—that goes against the very nature of yoga. Rewiring the brain takes time. The process is one step forward, one step back. When we judge ourselves, we only make it harder to move forward.

Consider this study: Researchers from Wake Forest University invited a group of dieting women to eat donuts before being ushered into a second room, where they were asked to taste-test some candy. Earlier studies had shown that once people break their diet, they are more likely to continue to eat unhealthy foods; the researchers wanted to know if self-compassion could impact that trend. They reminded one group that everyone eats too much sometimes and that it was no big deal; they didn’t say anything to the second group. The result? Those women who had been primed toward self-compassion ate significantly less candy—only 28 grams each compared to 70 grams in the unprimed group.

Kelly McGonigal, author of The Science of Compassion, writes, “If you think that the key to greater willpower is being harder on yourself, you are not alone. But you are wrong. Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control.” Compassion does not lack accountability; it is an essential ingredient for change.

Ride the wave.

In those moments when we have to make a choice—to fall back into the groove or to stay out of it—most likely a wave of sensation will build. Sometimes it’s a gentle wave, sometimes it’s so intense that you wonder why you intended to make this change at all.

Kripalu Yoga offers a tool to help navigate the fiery waters of tapas: Riding the Wave. Say you’re at that party, having just committed to a month without sugar—and you really want that slice of cake. Usually, you would simply alleviate the discomfort and eat the cake. But here you are with both the desire to eat the cake and the intention to stay sugar free. This is the time to practice Riding the Wave. Pause, breathe, and take a moment to feel what it’s like to have this desire. Feel it in your body and notice the thoughts that come with it. That cake will be delicious! I will feel so satisfied once I eat it! Stay with the experience and, eventually, without a doubt, it will pass. Riding the Wave helps us to manage the desire to fall back into a habit we want to kick. When we succeed, we rewire the brain so that next time, perhaps, the grip of that old pattern is a little looser.

Surrender and be free.

Sometimes life surprises you. I once had the intention to stop watching TV in bed before going to sleep. I had been struggling with insomnia and just about everything I read about good sleep hygiene said that watching TV in bed was a bad idea. And I knew that, on nights when I read or meditated instead, I slept better. Yet I could not seem to give it up. It was immensely frustrating: I would watch myself continually engage in this behavior and then wake up the next day having paid the price. This went on for longer than I would like to admit.

And then one day, I just stopped. To this day, I am unclear what exactly happened. Why the sudden change, with seemingly no effort? It reminded me not to underestimate the mystery of the transformational process. Sometimes heartfelt intention, combined with patience, trust, and time, has a magic of its own.

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Angela Wilson, LMHC, RYT 500, is a Kripalu faculty member who has conducted research and written about the intersection between yoga, Western psychology, and science.

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