Tapas may mean small amounts of amazingly delicious foods to some, or heat and effort to others, but to a yoga practice Tapas is one of the observances, one of five Niyamas, and part of the underlying structure of the practice. What does this mean? It represents the cleansing qualities of heat in the body, an openness to being beyond what might seem to be one's limitations, and the commitment to the discipline of our practice. It is a particularly delicious idea for the middle of winter, the way that we can build heat within us, sustain our practice with the integrity of our commitment, and find new space, understanding and peace as we burn off the impurities and lean more deeply into what is available to us. It is a way of guiding our exploration on the mat in the context of transformation and changes our sense of ourselves off the mat. If you haven't run into yourself blocking and weaving on the mat before, you will now. Recognizing and breathing through those obstacles in yourself, you can access what lies beyond them in your practice and in your life.
The pieces of the puzzle of yoga are called the eight limbs or the eight-fold path, representing principles and stages of being. The Asana practice is one of these limbs, as is Pranayama, the breath practice. The abstinences (Yamas) and observances (Niyamas) represent two of the limbs. Sensory withdrawal and the interior qualities of the mind is Pratyahara, single-pointed focus and concentration is Dharana. Meditation and being one with contemplative nature is Dhyana and the identification with the infinite that is bliss or nirvana is Samadhi. That's the eight fold path, short version! Patanjali, the ancient sage, describes the practices and stages of yoga in detail in his Yoga Sutras. There are many translations from the Sanskrit out there if you want to go deeper.
The cold wind, the blowing snow flurries seem to encourage beginning with Tapas. Shake off the lethargy, reignite your inner fires, give yourself a few more minutes to call out the heat of the sun in your own asana practice! Perhaps it is through a moving meditation in honor of your spine or the sun, perhaps it is through a layer of Kapalabhati breathing in Utkatasana (chair/fierce pose) or in a backbend like Ustrasana (camel) or Setu Bhandasana (Bridge), or just in taking on the challenge of making space for ten minutes of meditation morning and evening, you can raise the heat, raise the internal bar, observe the barriers you find as you allow them to become transparent and eventually burn away in the heat of your own prana (life energy). This is not competitive, nor is it aggressive energy. Discover the depth of your own quiet pool of strength in the middle of a cold winter day.
The two limbs of the Yamas and Niyamas each have five concepts, yet they all lead to one another. It really doesn't matter which one you begin to explore, you will find your way through them all eventually. Tapas leads to purity (Saucha) and truth (Satya), cannot really exist without letting go of gripping (Aparigrapha) or leaving be that which is not really yours (Asteya); must be nonviolent at its core (Ahimsa), observing of the true self (Svadhyaya), evolving a deep and abiding contentment (Santosha), connecting to the divine and eternal (Ishvarapranidhana) and even provoking a sense of conservation of deep energy and restraint (Bramacharya). These are the rest of the abstinences and observances. See if you can feel out which are abstinences that direct your relational behaviors, and those which are observances that apply to your internal structures. Tapas is one of the latter. (You can also revisit my blog entry from 12/25/2009 "Yamas & Niyamas: One Thing Leads to Another" to help sort this out.)
In Patanjali's Sutras he specifies that there are obstacles in the path of a yoga practitioner. Perhaps you can imagine that you see these obstacles in your path and step over some of them, yet you stub your toe on another. To take them on, try investigating Tapas, allowing your inner heat to sweat out illness, your breath to cleanse a negative attitude and recharge. As you practice Tapas, you may stop feeling sorry for yourself, or doubting your abilities. Perhaps your tendency to distraction or impatience will release into the fires of holding a pose or staying in meditation. Stay with it, let the puppy off the lease and wait til she comes back to lie down by the door. False concepts of self, like arrogance or its partner insecurity, will let go as you find the breath can support you as you actually are. In order to focus the mind, open to the fullness that is emptiness in meditation, and become one with your own essential nature and life energy, something has to change from just sitting in your chair wondering what you will have for the next meal, or figuring out when you have to leave in order to get to the next yoga class.
What is it like to throw yourself into the practice without judgment? Can you identify the tendency towards measuring and assessment and let that go? Allow yourself to go deeper, opening beyond the dualistic messages of can and cannot into the realm of being? Put yourself willfully into the practice (Tapas!) and once in it, surrender.