1.12 abhyasa vairagyabhyam tat nirodhah
These thought patterns (vrittis) are mastered (nirodhah, regulated, coordinated, controlled, stilled, quieted) through practice (abhyasa) and non-attachment (vairagya).
— www.swamij.com translation
For those of you who have fallen asleep during the past weeks of droning on (and on and on) about the nature of the conscious mind, I appreciate your pain. It wasn’t very exciting was it? Five functions of mind and/or sources of knowledge: correct information, error, imagination, sleep and memory. I have a tendency to rattle it off by rote, a function of my memory. In that respect, it was good to take some time to actually think about these functions. One of the bonus features of yoga is it has this tendency to bring the stuff we routinely sluff off into conscious awareness. If yoga is about mastery of the mind, I suppose it’s useful to have some definitions of what we’re talking about. It was still duller than ditchwater. And Hallelujah, saints be praised, we are through it…
Sometimes, using my ever active imagination, I conjure up an image of Patanjali’s students, sitting under the trees, wishing he’d hustle up with all the boring preamble and get on to the good stuff. I know I feel that way sometimes and lo and behold, we are now at the good stuff.
Now, pay attention to this stuff. We’re finally at the important bits. We’ve come to abhyasa and vairagya — persistent practice and non-attachment. This is the guts of yoga. Regardless of what form my yoga practice takes — postural, breathing, devotional, study — the twin principles of abhyasa and vairagya are the foundation of all of it. I’m going to be bold and say that if these two ideas are absent from a practice, it’s not yoga. Yup, it’s that important.
Abhyasa is continuing and persistent practice. It’s the principle that brings me back to the mat day after day, even on those days when ‘on the mat’ means sitting on it and meditating. All that nattering we (as yoga students in general) get from our teachers about cultivating a daily practice …there is it. Right here in this section of the sutras. Coming home to the mat, day after day. Continuing and persistent practice. Just note, Patanjali doesn’t say anything about what KIND of practice. There’s nothing here about postures or mantra or chant or any form of practice. It is just practice: open ended and undefined.
And why do I practice? What am I practicing for? This is where things get a little strange on the culture front. I practice because I practice and the purpose of practice is … practice. That’s the goal. That’s the objective. Right there. Practice is. Full stop. It’s not about standing on my head, reducing my body fat, or reaching nirvana. I might achieve any or all of those things (my money’s not on nirvana) but that is not the point. The point of yoga is yoga.
This idea reflects right back to the first aphorisms in the Sutras. What is the yoga? Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. And now do we do that? We do it through abiding practice and non-attachment.
Actually, abhyasa wasn’t so much of a problem for me. Having spent my formative years in the Army, the idea of hitting a yoga mat right first thing after rolling out of bed wasn’t a particularly strange idea. In fact, it beat (and still does) the idea of a 2 mile run in the dark while carrying a rifle over my head. Daily practice? Well, of course. The idea that I could skip practice didn’t occur to me until much later in my yoga career.
Vairagya, on the other hand, nearly sent me into a state of shock. When I first started yoga, this was a really difficult concept to wrap my head around. I still stumble over it about once a fortnight. What do you mean — there’s no goal? There’s no bench mark, no standard of performance? Errrrrrrr… ummmmmmmm, what the hell?
For a North American, this is cultural heresy. If there is no destination, how the hell will I know I’m there when I get there? Frankly, I thought my yoga teacher had smoked one too many vat of peace, love and patchouli oil but I was too Canadian to say as much. Anyway, the eye rolling probably gave it away.
I had no problem with the ‘put in the effort’ bit. My stumbling block is/was ‘letting go of the results’. the purpose of practice is practice. The purpose of yoga is yoga. It’s not about how far my back bends, where my seated forward bend is today, how long I can stay in warrior or downward facing dog or the length of my breath ratio. My job is to practice and then let go.
Let go of what? It’s the letting go of expectations, promises, standards, notions of results, levels of attainment, goals, competition, all of it. My job ends with the practice. My job is to practice and that is all.
This idea, that I can let go of the results, is wonderfully liberating when I let myself absorb it. And for someone who is as competitive as I can be, the idea that I have something in my life that I cannot fail at is very soothing and healing. When I let go of the results, I let go of all notions of pass/fail. Success itself becomes redefined.
At this stage of my life, this has become so important to me. My current health issues that have really brought about a great deal of reflection on the meaning of ‘success’. What makes a life successful? Career? Money in the bank? Relationships? Fame?
Yoga isn’t about the mat. It’s about Life. Here’s a life lesson for me, courtesy of Yoga. At the end of the day, it’s not about score on the board that counts. What matters is that I got into the game.
Abhyasa vairagya — two words you can live by.
Thanks for reading and Namaste,