When a garden-fresh sweet potato sounds better than New York cheesecake.
When the day-long dullness of sleeping two hours longer and skipping meditation feels more like a punishment than a treat.
When we decide to go to the park and play in nature instead of staying home and channel surfing.
These are all good signs that our yoga practices are hitting their mark and moving beyond the mat to changing our habits and behaviors.
Yet even yoga practitioners face those moments when we know that third glass of wine or second dessert will likely lead to regret, but we still find ourselves taken in by indulgences and the fleeting pleasure of the out-of-control moment. It’s an age-old quandary.
When we understand that with ability comes responsibility, we're able to realize that the human mind has the capacity to not only say "no" to cravings but to completely enjoy the higher alternative.
In yoga philosophy the word tapas is translated as discipline or austerity. Some translators liken it to penance, suffering, pious activity, or misery. It certainly doesn’t sound like there is much happiness to be found in that! But the sages spoke of the joy of self-discipline, the sweetness of sweat and service, and the movement of tapas to tejas (pure radiance). It is one of the basic tenets of yogic living. We deal every moment with the "I want" vs. "I need" dilemma, and some teachers tell us that making the higher choices is what differentiates humans from animals. (Though I have known some highly altruistic animals!) When we understand that with ability comes responsibility, we're able to realize that the human mind has the capacity to not only say "no" to cravings but to completely enjoy the higher alternative.
But while discipline can be fruitful (and even delightful!), excess in austerity can result in addiction of another type, especially when we fixate on personal appearance or ego-based attainments. The Buddha referred to the middle path. Not reckless behavior on Saturday night and starving the rest of the week, but consistent, pleasant ease in behavior.
My beloved teacher Eknath Easwaran told this story:
I can give one small example of this at my own expense. South India is full of cashew trees, and when I was a boy, the path to school led through a cashew nut orchard. Everyone likes cashew nuts, and the tree in fruit is an artist’s delight—beautiful colors made to captivate the eye. So a cashew orchard is a double temptation, and we boys, transparently honest on other occasions, regularly stopped to rob those particular trees on our way to school.
I must have done this throughout my career in high school. Then, after India’s independence, all our cashews began to be exported to the United States of America—a matter of foreign exchange—and those delicious nuts disappeared from my life. For the rest of my time in India, I got no nearer to a cashew than the factories where they were processed.
I thought I had forgotten this childhood passion until many years later in the U.S., when a hospitable friend with whom I was staying discovered this skeleton in my cupboard. She brought a big tin of cashew nuts and left it on my table as a surprise.
That evening I was reading the Gita with deep concentration when I suddenly discovered that my right hand was missing. I set the book aside and looked for it. It was hidden in the cashew tin!
I was utterly astonished. My mind and I are on fairly good terms, so I said sternly, “You can’t be doing what I think you are doing! Nibbling without my approval?” My mind looked sheepish. “Boss, you don’t think I would do that, do you? I was only trying to find out what was in the tin.”
Clearly, this was time to nip a compulsive attachment in the bud before it got out of hand.
I did not eat a single cashew that day, though my mind was craving for them. All those old, fierce memories were aroused, but every time they clamored for cashews, I went for a fast walk repeating my mantram or gave my mind something spiritual to read instead.
The next day was the same, and the next. For a few days, I read with my book supported by both hands.
Finally the craving went away. I forgot about cashew nuts completely. That day I told my mind, “Now you can take a handful and enjoy."
This is freedom. And, let me tell you, cashew nuts eaten in freedom taste a hundred times better than nuts eaten under the tyranny of a craving.
He didn’t throw them away, he grew his own character by tapas and then enjoyed both his cashews and his discipline. Easwaran told us often that we all have that capacity.
Discipline is not punishment, it’s freedom.
Sometimes setting up a "payment plan" for ourselves—like fasting only one day a week for clarity or empathy (not weight loss) and then donating the money saved to a passionate cause—is the middle path. It's not so much eating the sugar-free alternative cheesecake as it is learning to enjoy and savor the well-prepared kale served by and enjoyed with a loved one. Easwaran also spoke often of going out with friends, especially children, for treats. This is very different from a pint of Ben and Jerry’s on the sly. Enjoying the faces, the voices, the experience of family and friends and eating a small helping of celebratory ice cream with attention and not self-indulgence is a beautiful tightwire of tapas, which brings joy—real joy. Discipline is not punishment, it’s freedom. The fruits of tapas are what fuel our development, allowing us to give our best to life.