“Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion"”
Robert Pirsig

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Tapas and Relationships


This post was inspired by a post titled “Let Them Eat Harmony” by Joe Gerstandt. What I liked about it and caught my attention was this:

“… tension is a catalyst for learning, for change, and for evolution … “


Joe’s post is focused on relationships between people and the idea of “tension” is examined in that context, but to me the idea appealed more to our inner workings. Joe referenced what seemed like an academic/research kind of article in his post. As I was reading his post the Sanskrit word “tapas” kept coming back to me – and so I followed it’s trail back into my source – the Yoga Sutra.

“Tapas” is the first word in the first sutra of the 2nd chapter of the Yoga Sutra – a chapter dedicated to practice. The 1st chapter talks about the idea of clarity – and the 2nd chapter is about the practices that can lead to clarity. If you read the 1st chapter and don’t quite get it – then the 2nd chapter is just for you. My teachers have suggested that for many people the 2nd chapter is a better starting point then the 1st.

The 2nd chapter is about action & doing – and it opens with the word “Tapas” – which can be translated as heat that comes from friction. In the context of Yoga practice it is a friction that comes from a rigorous & disciplined practice. People often come to Yoga expecting to be pleased and entertained (the business of Yoga) and to experience peace (and harmony) – but that is a mis-perception. Yoga is about “tapas” – that is, according to the Yoga Sutra, how it works. Yoga is not set out to be pleasant – it’s designed to disturb you – to create friction and heat, to purify impurities, to soften mind and body so that they can be reshaped into something better (good teachers will create just enough friction, too little will have no effect, too much can have adverse effects).

“A relationship that is focused solely on commonality and excludes all difference has some value, but it is not nearly as valuable and robust as a more honest relationship could be … “

A practice that pleases you and makes you feel good about your body has some value but it isn’t nearly as valuable as a robust and demanding practice that exposes and confronts the nature of mind. A robust and honest Yoga practice is something you may occasionally enjoy – but more often it is a disciplined and rigorous practice. Sometimes just getting on the mat is a source of friction.


But there was also something about Joe’s post that I didn’t quite agree with. If I had to choose a phrase that marked it – it would be this:

“And human beings being real with each other is loud and messy and sometimes we knock stuff over.”

I understand and I can personally relate to what Joe is saying – but I think it falls short of a better understanding. So I did some more research and indeed the “tapas” trail kept on going.

Sutra 2.29 (second chapter, sutra 29) is a list of 8 disciplines which make up the art of Yoga:

  1. Yama – your attitude toward your environment.
  2. Niyama – your attitude toward yourself.
  3. Asana (physical practices)
  4. Pranayama (breathing practices)
  5. Pratyahara (quieting the mind)
  6. Dharana (focusing the mind)
  7. Dhyana (meditation)
  8. Integration (being present / clear perception / …)

Yoga is usually identified with Asana – physical practices, but you can see there is much more to it. The “tapas” trail reappears in the 2nd item on the list – in sutra 2.32 which provides more details on “Niyama”:

“The five personal principles of positive actions are purity, contentment, a disciplined life, study of the sacred texts and worship of God”

(Translation by Bernard Bouanchaud from “The Essence of Yoga”)

There is “tapas” again – this time it is mentioned not just in the context of practice – but as a quality and attitude we need to develop towards ourselves – Niyama. So, according to Yoga – rigorous discipline of the self – internal friction – is a key practice.


“Tapas” is not mentioned in the context of Yama (the first of 8 disciplines) – your attitude toward your environment and others. Sutra 2.30 provides details about what is included in Yama:

“The principles of respect for others include nonviolence, truth, honesty and non-covetousness”

(Translation by Bernard Bouanchaud from “The Essence of Yoga”)

As Joe suggested, truth and honesty are prescribed – but there is no mention of friction!

But … Yama (your attitude towards your environment) is described in sutra 2.30 and Niyama (your attitude towards yourself) is described in sutra 2.32 – so what’s in between them in sutra 2.31?

“When the adoption of these attitudes [ see sutra 2.30 ] in our environment is beyond compromise, regardless of our social, cultural, intellectual or individual station, it approaches irreversibility.”

(Translation by TKV Desikachar from “Heart of Yoga”)

An immediate commentary by TKV Desikachar on this sutra explains:

“We cannot begin with such attitudes. If we adopt them abruptly we cannot sustain them. We can always find excuses for not maintaining them. But if we seek to identify the reasons why we hold contrary views, isolate the obstacles that permit such views and our attitudes will gradually change. The obstacles will give way and our behavior toward others and our environment will change for the better”.

This sutra seems to be saying that to we must be prepared in order to practice a good relationship with the world around us. How can we prepare? The answer is in the next sutra 2.32 – Niyama: by first developing a proper attitude towards ourselves. If your relationship with other people is “loud and messy” then maybe you should be working on your relationship with yourself – and then revisiting your relationship with others.

When you do get relationships right – the effects approach irreversibility:

“But if you manage to absorb it and not pass it on, that’s the highest moral conduct of all. That really advances everything, not just you … some of the great moral figures of history … Christ, Lincoln, Gandhi … that’s what they were really involved in, the cleansing of the world through the absorption of karmic garbage. They didn’t pass it on.”

(by Robert Pirsig from “Lila”)

This entry was posted in Yoga, Yoga & Life, Yoga Sutra, Yoga Texts. You are welcome to read 7 comments and to add yours


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