in the full Sanskrit - most use the shorthand tapas in classes – translates often into "heat", but I’ve also understood it as and appreciate it as both “austerity” and “zeal” – I really like zeal as a translation.
"a practitioner of austerities, an ascetic"
"wretched, poor, miserable", but also "an ascetic, someone practicing austerities". This translation stems from Veda and Hindu traditions where it was used to illustrate ‘spiritual suffering, mortification or austerity’, but it can also be used to indicate ‘spiritual ecstasy’ (love the reality that yoga is the continual paradox; union of oppositional concepts – mortification and spiritual ecstasy in one word!).
how about "essential energy” but not merely energy, but the control and direction of that energy towards not only bodily purification but also supporting personal, mental, emotional and spiritual change, refinement and stability.
Interesting topic, lots of help from outside sources to offer perspective, classic translations and to check my recollection of basic chemistry; thanks and praise to the internet for info and please go easy on me – this is about metaphors and concepts, I’m not Mr. Science Guy!
Many of us know tapas as one of the observances – or niyamas – from the Yoga Sutras (I like to say observances, but maybe discipline or choices works for you). Tapas doesn’t just mean a discipline of fiery heat, but rather it suggest that we create the austerity in our quest to not only restrain our physical urges, but also to move ‘actively’ towards a more spiritual or purpose-driven existence.
I like to think of it as burning away the impurities and impediments, as well as catalyzing those beneficial properties of self-improvement. To create a fire to burn away what doesn’t serve, to make nebulous our multiple sources of personal power and then to take that expansion and distill and condense life-force essence… so, we can burn what doesn’t serve and preserve what does.
Maybe it’s getting clean, maybe clear; maybe it’s purification, or a sense of purpose or striving to improve – it may express itself as the longing for union, or for dissolution, for liberation or in preparation for devotion and meditation. Whether it presents and serves for clarification, purification, transmogrification; tapas moves the form from the gross to the subtle, from the lowest to the highest – it serves as a catalyst for personal alchemy.
may derive from the Old French alquimie, from the Medieval Latin alchimia, which is in turn from the Arabic al-kimia (الكيمياء). This term itself is derived from the Ancient Greek chemeia (χημεία) or chemia (χημία) with the addition of the Arabic definite article al- (الـ).
The ancient Greek word may have been based on the Ancient Egyptian word kēme (hieroglyphic Khmi - black earth, as opposed to desert sand), a version of the Egyptian name for Egypt. Or, the word could also have originally derived from the Greek chumeia (χυμεία) meaning "mixture" and referring to pharmaceutical chemistry.
However we derive the definition, alchemy is an influential philosophical tradition whose early practitioners’ claimed, among other mystical realms, to possess powers including the capability of creating an elixir of life conferring youth and immortality. While early Alchemists developed theory, terminology, experimental process and basic laboratory techniques that are still recognizable today, alchemy differs from modern science in the inclusion of principles and practices that include mythology, religion, and spirituality.
Catalyst & Catalysis:
In a general sense, anything that increases the rate of a process is a "catalyst", a term derived from Greek καταλύειν meaning "to annul," or "to untie," or "to pick up” (interesting that there is the element of annulment and also ‘picking up’ – perhaps ‘uplifting’ or ‘upward flying’ as Uddiyana Bandha is often translated).
Catalysis is the change in the rate of a reaction (chemical) due to the participation of a substance called a catalyst – let’s say tapas in this example. Unlike other reagents (causative elements) that participate in the chemical reaction, a catalyst is not consumed by the reaction itself. A catalyst may participate in multiple chemical transformations, many of these are expressed bio-chemically within our bodies.
Catalytic reactions are preferred in environmentally-friendly (green) chemistry (or a purpose-driven life of austerity) due to the reduced amount of waste generated, as opposed to other types of reactions in which all reactants are consumed and more side products are formed. Side products can be a nice term for toxins, by-products or pollutants, although sometimes it can be beneficial, e.g. oxygen being released during a reaction. What’s important to know is that a great catalyst is not consumed in the fire it helps create and creates less waste than other lesser reactants.
In nature, enzymes are our catalysts in metabolism and catabolisim. Most biocatalysts are protein-based - i.e. enzymes - so, intrinsically, on the physical level we can receive metabolic stimulation or stabilization through the use of catalytic biological processes. Perhaps the same can be said of our energetic and emotional beings and if so, then we can apply this process to our entire being.
So, your natural innate ability to light your own fire through tapas and to apply that purifying, clarifying, and catalyzing action into burning away impurities and further distilling the essences that nourish, improve and serve… this is one of the blessings of the asana practice, it can be a great vehicle for us to begin to cultivate awareness of the inherent alchemical, transmogrifying effects of simple, devotional austerity.
So, friends, give thanks and praise and transmute the gross to the subtle – burn bright, but sustainably bright, like the sun that ne’er wavers or diminishes.