1.15 drista anushravika vishaya vitrishnasya vashikara sanjna vairagyam
Freedom from desires is achieved with intellect and control. – translation by Mark Giubarelli
When I was doing my teacher’s training, one of the themes my teacher worked from was the idea that yoga, that difficult to comprehend state of total union, is found in the dynamic tension between polar opposites. One of those pairs of opposites was the pair I’ve been dealing with this week: abhyasa (persistent practice) and vairagya (non-attachment). In other words, it’s not just developing and maintaining a daily practice. It’s not just letting go of our goals and aspirations for that practice. It’s doing both, at the same time. It’s abhyasa AND vairagya.
It’s easy for me to fall into the trap of associating raga (attachment) with negative influences only. Since addictions falls into this category, I think that mentally my mind goes immediately to the category of addictive substances. It probably helps that I have my own addiction issues to deal with that tends to make the subject front and center in my brain. The fact is that I can develop unhealthy attachments to anything – even things that are ‘good’ for me.
Exercise is one of the things that can land there. Generally speaking – broad sweeping generality alert – most Canadians don’t get enough physical exercise in the run of a day to counteract the impact and natural consequences of their mostly sedentary lifestyle. It’s not that it takes a lot – my cardiologist tells me that 30 minutes a day, every day, of simple walking will do the trick. The problem is that most of us aren’t doing it on a consistent and regular basis. That would be the abhyasa part, not that you haven’t already sussed that out. (I have tremendously clever readers).
Regular exercise also makes us feel good inside our bodies. It gives a mental satisfaction of a job well done. A goal accomplished feels good. Strenuous exertions stimulates the body to release the natural opiates and for some people this becomes their reward for hard work. It`s possible to become very attached to this feeling of euphoria and well-being and being human, we pursue the things that make us feel good and pull away from the things that make us feel uncomfortable.
There`s plenty of documented cases of people pursuing physical exercise to the extreme – working their bodies beyond where it`s good for them. This can be mild like what happens to people when they fall into “overtraining“ situations. More extreme is the individual in the grips of anorexia nervosa who exercises to the point of committing serious physical harm to the body. Just a note – anorexia nervosa is a serious mental illness that if untreated leads to death of the individual. I`m not suggesting this disorder is some simple one-factor problem, although I think the yogic perspective of “attachment disorder` is not completely out in left field. The point is we can get overly attached to anything, even things that are good for us, and use them to damage ourselves.
Thank God yoga is immune to such problems…or is it? I have a personal, unrequited love affair for the famous Ashtanga Primary yoga sequence. For those wanting a little more explanation, the Ashtanga Primary sequence was developed by Sri Pattabhi Jois and is a vigorous and athletic postural flow where practitioners move from one pose to another in rapid progression. It’s the same sequence, every time, and those who become adept at it can turn it into a beautiful moving meditation. I took an 8 week course in it and I loved it. It appealed to my goal-oriented personality. I felt energized and a little bit bigger than life when I did it. It pushed me physically but it was so emotionally satisfying. Doing it gave me a real sense of accomplishment and exhilaration. It’s also about the last sequence I would ever prescribe for myself. It doesn’t bring me to balance. It feeds those parts of my personality that dominate my life already by reason of work and biography. It builds on my existing strengths instead of working on bolstering my less developed areas. The last thing someone like me is more wind-up. I’m already high energy. My motto is “Go, Go, Go-harder”. I need to learn to shut things down. I need to learn to slow down, let go, release. In other words, left to my own devices, I’m all abhyasa and no vairagya.
Now, let’s be clear. I’m not blaming the Ashtanga sequence for this. The person on the mat next to me, doing the exact same sequence of postures, might use the Ashtanga sequence to bring herself to a place of balance, harmony and inner awareness. It might be a viable route to the state of Yoga in her hands. In me, it becomes a means to feed my ego and fracture me further. It’s not the sequence. It’s the attachment. In me, it’s “I don’t have a drinkin’ problem; I have a thinkin’ problem” at work.
To my mind, we need to develop awareness and discernment surrounding everything because it’s always possible to turn a positive into a negative by ignoring our reality. For millions of Ashtanga sequence aficionados, it’s a healthy physical, mental and spiritual pursuit. In my hands, it’s disruptive, ego-feeding and disruptive to my development of state of Yoga. Looking at my yoga practice with a reasoned sense of detachment is the only way I know of keeping myself in the working in this dynamic tension between abhyasa and vairagya.
Put it the work; let go of the results. It’s a big theme in yoga and one we’ll return to again and again on our journey. Later this week (I hope), a look at developing detachment as a spiritual exercise.
Until then, thanks for reading and Namaste,
A general note: This blog is about trying to integrate the philosophical teachings of Yoga into my daily life. I’m not an expert on Sanskrit, Yoga or Life in general. My teacher Kathryn Downton provides an important part of my education in these matters but I read voraciously on these topics. I’ll credit her for the parts that I get right and I’ll own the parts I mess up. I try to acknowledge my sources where I can but frankly, I haven’t kept good notes over the years on where I got this stuff. These discussions are meant to be about one person’s perspective and not an intellectual treatise on the nature of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Please keep in mind that this is exploration and not explanation.