The Primordial Tapas:

The foundation for Yoga


Even though the word Yoga has come to be associated with Yoga Asanas in the last fifty years, there are other limbs of Yoga to which ancient yogis, as well as yogis through the ages, have attached much greater importance. Patanjali defines Kriya Yoga (YS 2.1), which is generally interpreted as Yoga for the householder, as consisting of Tapas (Austerity), Swadhyaya (Study of Scriptures) and Ishwara Pranidhana (devotion/surrender to Ishwara). Patanjali says that (YS 2.2) by the practice of Kriya Yoga, various defects of the mind and body are removed and the mind gradually cultivates Samadhi - the end state of the Yoga practice.

In this article, we will look at Tapas (Austerity), the foundation on which all Yogic practices are built. Every Yogi in the scriptures is depicted as having done a lot of tapas but hardly any have been mentioned as having done asanas.

The Primordial Tapas from the Bhagavatham

One of India's holiest scriptures is Shrimad Bhagavatham which talks about the stories of Lord Vishnu and his Bhaktas (devotees). In it is described how Brahma, the creator, was born on a Lotus whose stalk came from Lord Vishnu's navel when Lord Vishnu was in his mystic Yoganidra (cosmic sleep). It was pitch dark at the beginning of creation and Brahma slides down on the stalk to see where it ends but could find no end. He then climbs back up, not knowing who he was or what to do next. It is then that he heard the word "Tapa" uttered as two syllables, "ta (त​)" and "pa(प​)" joined together.

Brahma hears the word Tapas

Brahma performs Tapas

Tapas: 16th and 21st syllables

स चिन्तयन् द्वय‍क्षरमेकदाम्भ-

स्युपाश‍ृणोद् द्विर्गदितं वचो विभु: ।

स्पर्शेषु यत्षोडशमेकविंशं

निष्किञ्चनानां नृप यद् धनं विदु: ॥ ६ ॥

sa cintayan dvy-akṣaram ekadāmbhasy

upāśṛṇod dvir-gaditaṁ vaco vibhuḥ

sparśeṣu yat ṣoḍaśam ekaviṁśaṁ

niṣkiñcanānāṁ nṛpa yad dhanaṁ viduḥ

"While thus engaged in thinking, in the water, Brahmā heard twice from nearby two syllables joined together. One of the syllables was taken from the sixteenth and the other from the twenty-first of the sparśa alphabets, and both joined to become the wealth of the renounced order of life.

Lord Brahmā heard the occult sound tapa, but he did not see the person who vibrated the sound. And still he accepted the instruction as beneficial for him, and therefore he underwent penances for one thousand years.

He controlled his mind and senses, and the penances he executed were a great lesson for the living entities. Thus he is known as the greatest of all ascetics.

What constitutes Tapas

We saw that Tapas is Austerity. It is also called as Sukha Tyaga. It means giving up base pleasures for a higher, more refined goal. Tapas is sometimes misconstrued as self mortification. This is however wrong. Ahimsa always precedes Tapas (Ref: The many dimensions of Ahimsa and Tapas in our Asana practice)

The word Tapas comes from the root "Tap" (pronouned thup) which means heat. It refers to the destruction of impurities in the body through the heat of austerity. In India, fasting during certain times of the month is considered tapas. In Ayurveda, when the body's fire (Jatara agni) is weak, one is encouraged, under certain circumstances, to fast for a portion of the day and eat one light meal like khichdi to recover the body's fire, which if burning strong naturally destroys all impurities.


One need not be a great yogi by performing difficult poses but by the ability to perform tapas, which is giving up base pleasures for a higher goal. Tapas generates the heat that is needed to purify the body and the mind.