The word tapas in yoga translates to "steady self-control."
It's one of the 5 yamas of yoga philosophy, meant to be a daily practice. Whether you practice yoga or not, many of us are completely out of control on a regular basis. Physically, we become out of touch with our bodies. Mentally we often feel rushed, distracted and inefficient, and emotionally, we find ourselves in a completely reactive state. The less connection we have to our body and breath, the more reactive we will remain, causing stress for ourselves and oftentimes, those around us. Without tapas, outside circumstances will dramatically effect us and control our sense of peace.
Picture yourself in rush-hour traffic. If someone cuts you off, what is your typical action? Do you allow your emotions to take over and result in a negative reaction, or are you able to control your thoughts and respond wisely? Sutra 33 is one of my favorite reminders of other's behavior and self-control: “By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked (i.e. anyone we perceive as wrong-doing), the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.”
In other words, practice disregard toward the driver who you perceived as wrong-doing. Remaining calm and undisturbed is often be easier said than done. But it's SO worth it. When you can practice tapas within the microcosm of your yoga practice, it eventually becomes easier to utilize the same sense of control within your daily life.
Bring your mind back to the rush-hour traffic example. Suppose you're caught off guard or already having a stressful day and you do react negatively. What is actually happening in your mind and body? Within your mind, you are not present. You are making negative associations based on past experiences, assumptions about the other driver, and creating separation. Your mind is cycling through scenarios, allowing your feelings to take over logical thought. Inside your body, negative stress hormones flood your system, muscles lock up and create tension, fight-or-flight responses kick in and you find yourself in a loop of negativity, even though the moment has long-since past.
Best case scenario: you are only harming yourself, but in most cases, you are in some way spreading your negativity to others.
Why do we allow external factors to effect us so much? Many of what are now subconscious reactions are learned patterns and behaviors from those around us. Research tells us that we are most like the 5 people that regularly surround us. (That information is usually either comforting or concerning). Many of us were never modeled useful tools to manage our stress, control our thought-patterns or learn how to respond calmly. We must learn to tolerate discomfort in all of it's many forms.
Reactions take time to UNlearn. All of our patterns of behavior are samskaras. Breaking negative samskaras starts with self-control. Self-control starts with noticing. We can notice where negativity exists in our thoughts by journaling, notice how being 'out-of-control' makes us feel, notice how breath effects the body and reactions effect the breath, and practice ways of creating new patterns that serve us one at a time.