Raga and Devesha
Attachment to pleasure and aversion to pain
Pleasure and pain are part of life. We humans seek pleasure and avoid pain in the pursuit of happiness. But ironically, when we cling to pleasure or even cling to the aversion of pain, it instead brings suffering and loss of happiness.
Raga and Devesha, attachments and aversions, come from holding onto memories of the past. We hold onto knowledge, concepts, and expectations of how life should be or should not be. We hold onto life with fixed ideas, ideals, and principles. And we hold onto possessions, people, and things in hope of happiness.
Rohit Mehta says in his book, Yoga, the Art of Integration, “Man seeks security and continuity for that which is forever in a state of flux. Life is eternally dynamic and therefore ever discontinuous.” “Life can be experienced. It cannot be held.”
We seek security by holding on. But true internal security comes only from letting go. When we hold on, we are attached and in bondage and not free. True freedom and happiness comes from letting go and opening up to the present moment. In the present moment our hearts and consciousness can open and connect with the sacred core inside and the sacred in all of life, connecting us with true security and happiness.
There is a story from ancient India about a musk deer that was born with a scent of musk on his forehead. But he spent his whole life seeking and searching for this wonderful scent that seemed to be somewhere out there just around the next corner, not realizing that the scent was there already as a part of himself.
In Yoga we learn to let go of tension, mental noise, illusion, indulgence, resistance, the ego, and of life. Yoga is a discipline towards freedom. By letting go of tension and blockages in our body we can open the channels and invite freedom of circulation, breath, life force, health and healing into every cell. By letting go of mental noise and illusions we can open our consciousness to life as it continually changes. By letting go of our ego, we can connect with our true self. And only by letting go of life can we truly live.
But to let go takes courage. The origin of the word “courage” comes from Latin meaning “from the heart.” In Yoga we learn to let go of our mind stuff, the mental attachments, and open our hearts to the fullness of life.
I once heard Wayne Dyer express the concept of detachment in a lecture. He said we come to life with nothing and we leave with nothing. To remind himself daily of not being attached to anything, he has a coat hanging in his closet from which he has cut out the two big pockets.
But being detached does not mean being uninterested. On the contrary, by letting go of attachment can we be more free to open up and experience genuine love, care, and unity with all people and life around us. The word Yoga means union.
Now let’s see how Raga and Devesha relate to our Yoga practice on the mat. The Yoga philosophy cannot be understood intellectually. Instead it’s a practical philosophy that can only be absorbed through exploration and experience. My teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar says, “The body doesn’t lie.” By observing and reflecting on the way we practice our Yoga poses, can we begin to learn more about ourselves and life.
Which poses are Raga, that we find pleasurable? And which poses are Devesha, that we have an aversion to and avoid? In class the other day we went around the room and each person expressed which were their Raga poses and which were Devesha poses. Over the years when I have asked this in class there is always somebody replying with a surprised voice “You like that pose? I don’t like that one at all!” Or “You don’t like that pose?? I love it!!” Well, we are all different. What is one person’s strength is another’s weakness.
My teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar, says a balanced Yoga practice will make an introvert into an extrovert and an extrovert into an introvert. For example, some people prefer forward bends and avoid backbends. We usually prefer the poses that come easier to us, the ones we are strong or more flexible in, and we resist the ones that are challenging, that we are weaker or tighter in. It’s usually the poses we resist the most that we also need the most and will help us heal and become whole. The word “heal,” in its essence, means to “become whole.”
If we only focus on the pleasurable poses, the Raga poses, we actually create greater imbalances, compression, strain, pain and suffering on a long-term basis. For beginning students, focus daily on some poses you like and some that you don’t like but may need the most. In our Dynamic I/II, II, and III classes, we focus on alternate day practice. At these more experienced levels, when the students have learned a variety of Yoga poses, they can start to alternate their home practice to “Day A and Day B”; between a forward bending day and a backward bending day. This “cross-training” helps to balance the muscular body as well as the internal being and give the student a chance to enjoy their Raga poses one day and the next day to look a little deeper into the Devesha poses.
B.K.S. Iyengar says that areas of tension or weaknesses are “black holes” in our bodies. Most pain in our bodies, external or internal, are due to compression and imbalances caused by tension or weakness. So, when you encounter a challenging pose or area in your body, instead of avoiding it with Devesha, breathe into it gently, let go and allow the area to open up and be free to invite circulation, health, and healing.
So, what are some other ways we experience Raga or Devesha in our Yoga practice? Sometimes we cling to delicious experiences we had in a pose, practice, or class and expect to experience the same good feeling again, next time on the mat. Or we resist and have an aversion to getting onto the mat at all from challenging memories of the last practice. Instead, if you totally let go of past experiences of how a pose should feel or did feel and just open up to the present moment and experience the pose fully, it is always fresh and new. Try practicing your Yoga poses daily, as if you had never done them before, with open eyes, ears, curiosity, and a presence of mind.
In his book, Inner Beauty, Inner Light, Frederick LeBoyer says, “To do the same thing day after day, year after year, must be boring. It’s true that mechanical repetition only dulls. But where there is profound attention one never stops seeing deeper and deeper.” And what I feel is so beautiful and unique about the Iyengar method of Yoga is the continual attention to details to deepen the awareness and exploration. Our teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar, now 86, is continually exploring and experimenting with ways to make Yoga accessible to every body in every way. And thanks to our Teacher, Iyengar Yoga is always fresh, creative, and evolving like life itself.
Another way that we are attached to Raga or Devesha, is in clinging to one Yoga teacher or resisting another. Or clinging to a certain way of doing a pose that we learned from the past and resisting new ways. In my experience, whenever I take a workshop with a new teacher, there are often different ways poses are taught. Initially I experience a resistance. But as I let go of old ways, and open up to the teacher and their guidance, I usually learn something new and exciting.
Sometimes students cling to their Yoga teachers and gurus, and teachers cling to their students, for approval, support, and fulfillment. But instead of interdependency, Yoga is a discipline towards freedom, towards self-sufficiency and internal fulfillment.
As you observe Raga and Devesha on your Yoga mat, also observe your attachments and aversions in your daily life and relationships with people, work, and nature. Observe with curiosity and honesty, without judgment. There is always something to learn and discover.
Thich Naht Hahn, a Buddhist monk, reminds us to meet each day fresh. “Waking up this morning I smile, twenty four brand new hours of life are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”
To sum it all up, Yoga is about letting go of the past and to open our hearts with courage, wisdom, and joy to life daily. And with intuition seek balance and harmony with the ever changing flux of life; with our bodies, family members, work, society, and environment.
So, this season we welcome you to open up with Yoga and meet each moment fresh and new and embrace life fully with all its wonder and awe.