All the practices of yoga are directed towards the attainment of a steady state of mind. Transition to such a state of mind is not possible for ordinary people like us in whom the compulsion to act is deeply ingrained. Since we cannot stop acting, we must enter the path to such stillness through action — actions that are conducive to developing tranquil stillness within. In other words, we need to do those actions that will, in time, free us from the constant mental compulsion to act. Also implied are the avoidance of actions that disturb our mind. We need to replace actions that lead us away from the path of yoga, away from freedom, stillness and tranquility, with those that lead us toward these.
In this context it is important to be clear of the goal of the practice. The practices may involve external actions like asanas and pranayama but their goal is an internal change. The effectiveness of the practice of these disciplines is to be judged not just by how intensely you practise them or how much time you devote to them, but by how much they succeed in freeing you from the cycle of mundane actions.
Tapas involves letting go of the constant search for pleasure and tolerating the discomfort that this deprivation induces. Tapas is essential: without tapas, one will not progress in the path of yoga. It is indispensable because it involves developing the mental resolve required to sustain the practices of yoga in the face of discomfort and to weaken our habitual dependence on external objects to maintain fulfilment of mind. These two aspects are mutually reinforcing.
Desire is ever present in the mind, and objects are always being presented to the mind by the senses. If one does not makes an effort to break this cycle with the practice of tapas, there is no room for progress towards freedom from dependence on external situations for satisfaction. The first among the pleasurable sense objects that one must take control of is food. Control over the desire for food is most important. It is essential to eat less, and to avoid eating for pleasure.
Do not allow food to dictate your state of mind. For example, if you find yourself over-eating, looking for the best restaurant to eat in, researching which items are better in which restaurant, avidly anticipating a delicious meal, or analysing the sandwich and thinking that it would be better if the cheese was more fresh or the bread softer, understand that you have lost your mind to the food. Fulfilment does not lie in the pleasure of the taste of the meal. It lies in satiating the desire for that taste. And that desire will return in full force after a week or two, and you will find yourself searching to satisfy it, remaining unfulfilled until you have the food you want, and reaching partial fulfilment when you do, for now something else in the food may not match up to your expectations.
And if the meal were fantastic, would you not like the experience of the pleasure you felt in the first few bites to last longer? Would you not like the entire experience to be more intense? Where does the search for fulfilment in tasty food end? It doesn’t. Because the fulfilment was never in the food. It was in your mind. Naturally, tapas is not to be practised to an extreme. The goal is to control the disturbance created in mind, not to punish the body. The latter would be counter-productive. Therefore, tapas is to be practised well within the limits of physical health, while keeping a close watch on the mind.
The word tapas is used in a wide variety of meanings in various Sanskrit texts. Do not confuse yourself with all that. The Yoga sutras view physical health as being important in an indirect sense in that an unhealthy body can be an impediment in working towards a quieter mind.
Understand it this way: tapas is to voluntarily relinquish the pleasures that draw the mind to them, with the knowledge that one is doing so to be free of the mental disturbance they create. It is to avoid seeking pleasure and to bear the discomfort that arises from that, but with the knowledge that such deprivation is but temporary, while the steadiness of mind that arises from such practice will lead to lasting fulfilment in time. It is the path not to self-deprivation, but to self-gain through freedom from domination by sense pleasures.
A. G. Mohan and Dr. Ganesh Mohan are yoga practitioners and authors of several books