Ahbyasa and Vairagya
Abhyasa : effort, willpower, practice
Vairagya : letting go, acceptance, detachment
This contradictory theme of effort and letting go is a thread that is woven through the entire Yoga Philosophy. And it’s in the continual dance between effort and letting go that the secret of Yoga is experienced.
Yoga Sutra chapter 1, verse 12 says, “Abhyasa Vairagyabhyam Tannirodhah – Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness.” (Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by B.K.S. Iyengar). The practice of Yoga, in essence, is to learn to control and to quiet the mind’s continual “chit-chat.” And it’s in the silence between two thoughts that our hearts can open up and experience an intimacy with the source of our Being and the source of life.
So, how can we find this balance between effort and letting go in our Yoga practice? Let’s take a step back and look at the meaning of Hatha Yoga. First, Hatha Yoga is the physical path of Yoga and includes all schools of Yoga that practice asanas, the Yoga postures. “Ha-tha” means sun-moon. “Ha,” the sun, represents light, energy, and life force. And “Tha,” the moon, symbolizes cool, quiet, and reflective energy. In each Yoga pose we seek to balance the sun and moon energy. My teacher, Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar, says “Allow your intelligence to penetrate evenly throughout the body to its extremities, like the rays of the sun.” For example, when doing the Triangle pose, the arms, legs, and spine are fully extended and every cell is engaged, filled with radiant sun energy, while the mind is quiet yet reflective and aware with moon energy.
But, it’s not easy to establish this quiet, reflective moon energy with our “chit-chat” minds. However, one way to quiet the mind is with the feedback system of our senses. When the mind is full of effort, the eyes harden, the throat tenses, and the breath becomes forced, like when we are trying to do a perfect dog pose. Try instead to consciously relax the eyes, tongue, throat and breath, and this in turn will relax the mind and make it quiet and present.
So, “Ha-tha” Yoga simplified is the balance between an active body and a quiet mind. And it’s in the silence of the mind that the body, mind, and spirit are brought back together into the present moment. They are united. Yoga means union. Another way to look at “Ha-tha” Yoga is “Ha” being effort, with the mind focused on the future, anticipating results. And “Tha” being the quality of just letting go and resting in the past. When there is a balance between effort and letting go, “Ha/tha,” the mind is in the presence of now.
But, to find this balance between effort and letting go and to be fully in the present moment is challenging for us all. When practicing Yoga, some people are “pushers,” others “pamperers.” Or we swing back and forth between the two extremes. The “pushers” practice with too much effort; for example, they do their hamstring stretches forcefully with ambition, pushing and forcing beyond their healthy edge, and this brings no transformation, only strain, pain, injury and no fun.
On the other hand, the “pamperers” let go too much due to laziness, lack of energy, or lack of determination, and this leads to stagnation, decay, and no change. Instead, positive transformation can only happen in the fine balance between effort and letting go, Abhyasa and Vairagya. The next time you do your standing poses, forward bends, or back bends, first give your full effort and awareness to the alignment and action of the pose. Then let go a little. Relax your eyes, throat, breath and mind, and in the space of silence see how you can actually go deeper. Here is a little secret: at the end of each exhalation, where willpower and letting go meet, pause for a few seconds and experience how you can release and open up from deep within, not from force but from awareness.
Now, the next Yoga Sutra, chapter 1, verse 14 says “Sa tu dirghakala nairantarya satkara asevitah drdhabhumih – Practice has to be prolonged, uninterrupted and filled with enthusiasm!” (Yoga, the Art of Integration, by Rohit Mehta)
Mehta continues, “Practice demands an effort that is prolonged, stretching over a long duration. There is nothing like Instant Yoga. It requires a continuous effort spread over a number of years.” Periodically students new to Yoga wonder after just a few classes why their hamstrings are not longer yet, or why they are still having a hard time doing Chaturanga Dandasana (yogic push-up), or why the shoulders are still tight. They are expecting Instant Yoga and a “quick fix.” Also, when starting Yoga class students often go home with enthusiasm and practice some of the poses for a few days or weeks. Then, the enthusiasm wears off and they stop. A week or month later they again get inspired by a class, a new teacher, or a workshop, and they go back home to practice on their Yoga mat. After a few days or weeks of no improvement, they again give up. We call this “yo-yo Yoga,” “on-off, on-off.”
Scientific studies have shown that we need to practice a Yoga pose continually for a minimum of three times a week for four weeks to allow a substantial change in the length, strength, and coordination of the muscles to happen. So, for those of you who experience limitations in the hamstrings or shoulder, who have challenges with Chaturanga Dandasana, crazy dog, or full arm balance, try this magic formula for four weeks and see what happens. Or you can use the four-week formula for any other poses you have tried “on and off” but have had little or no success with in the past. Personally, I have been doing “yo-yo Yoga” myself for many years, without success, in my attempts to do the elbow balance freestanding in the middle of the room. As I write, I have committed myself to practice that pose for four weeks, three to five times a week. I’ll let you know if the formula works!
So, what’s the point of trying new poses, of doing more advanced poses, or going deeper in a pose? Well, there is actually nothing magic about the finished pose or a more advanced pose. Just because some people can do a fancy backbend or put their leg behind their head doesn’t mean they are more enlightened than others who have their fingers barely reaching down below their knees in a standing forward bend.
In Yoga it’s not what you do, but how you do it that is the power of the practice. Quality is more important that quantity. To bring quality to a pose you align the body with balance, extend fully, and then go to your healthy edge, breathe, relax and experience. This process in itself stimulates circulation, cleansing and rejuvenation to every cell in the body and cultivates mindfulness. Interestingly, two people doing the same seated forward bend will actually get the same benefit from the same pose even if one can only touch the fingers to the shins and the other can rest the forehead on the legs, if they both go to their own healthy edge with quality and awareness.
Yet, some of the more advanced and complex Yoga asanas can affect the body and the mind in a more concentrated way. Yoga teacher John Schumacher once said, “To do simple beginning Yoga asanas is like using Ivory soap. They do a gentle “cleansing.” But the more advanced asanas are more like Bon Ami. They scrub and cleanse the body and the mind more effectively.” Also, moving into new poses and new territories in our bodies cultivates awareness and courage and keeps our practice fresh and alive.
Abhyasa, or practice, not only needs to be prolonged and uninterrupted, but also needs enthusiasm. Mehta says, in Yoga, the Art of Integration, “The effort must have a quality of cheerfulness about it. Yoga is not a path of woe; it is indeed a way of joy. If the effort is prolonged and uninterrupted yet lacks this quality of joy, then it is hardly of any worth at all. The effort must have an element of passion about it, for one can not go to the door of Reality like a skeleton, completely squeezed out.”
Very well said, but how can we cultivate this enthusiasm in our practice? If we mainly strive for future results or for the finished pose, our practice will be dry. Or if we are driven by duty, doing what we think we should do or have to do, or if our practice is habitual and mechanical, it will lack passion and joy. On the other hand, if there is a lack of determination and effort, the practice will instead be dull and also lack the “juice of enthusiasm.” In class today, when talking about Abhyasa and Vairagya, one of my students just back from Greece told me the origin of the word “enthusiasm.” It comes from the Greek words “en theos” or “in god,” to have our hearts filled with god consciousness.
Now, how can we cultivate enthusiasm in our practice? The secret again lies in the balance between effort and letting go. We do our Yoga practice with dreams, visions, and goals, both big and small. And then we set the sails in the desired direction with determination and effort. But simultaneously, we need to let go of all expectations of any desired outcomes or any desired results. The dreams and goals people often have in Yoga are to be more flexible, have a happy back, trim belly, and firm thighs, do the lotus pose, stand on the head, have more energy, and be more youthful, relaxed and enlightened.
Whatever the dreams are, we need to practice regularly and faithfully, but simultaneously let go of any expectations of any desired outcomes. We need to let go of all expectations of achieving long hamstrings, the lotus pose, and enlightenment. There is a certain excitement and fun in achieving and being able to do the “finished pose.” But this excitement is short lived. The true enthusiasm and fulfillment in our practice is only found in the process, in the moment-to-moment awareness. The paradox is that when we let go, and detach ourselves from any expectations amid full effort and determination, the body, mind and heart can open up to the process and to the present moment, and in the Presence of Now invite genuine enthusiasm, en theos.
Some years ago a visiting teacher told us in a workshop that “attempting a pose is full benefit.” In our Yoga practice, when we try new poses, or old ones we have not yet mastered or become friends with, we just simply “attempt” them. We attempt and practice them regularly with quality, alignment, and balance, with the breath, relaxation and awareness. And curiously it is in this full-hearted attempt that we receive full benefit with circulation, health, freedom, and mindfulness.
So, if you have challenges with forward or backbends, shoulder or hip openers, just attempt them fully, say hello to them daily, make friends with them, and transformation will naturally happen. Or if you have challenges with the balancing poses, like the tree pose, half moon pose, or elbow balance in the middle of the room, just attempting them daily with small steps to develop coordination and the “courage muscle.” As little steps of improvement are experienced, they fuel our faith in the process.
But, sometimes there are obstacles on our path. Some days we are more tired, weak, tender, or low. And some days there are disturbances to our plans and schedules. Then, just “attempting” your poses and practice is full benefit. And for whatever little steps or attempts you have made that day in your practice, it is important to pat yourself on the back and celebrate each effort and step on the way. B.K.S. Iyengar says, “Take a step no matter how small.”
Another way to add some enthusiasm into your practice is to add a little smile to your lips while doing your Yoga poses. Yoga teacher Patricia Walden told us this summer in a seminar that a little smile will relax and release tensions in the face and mind and change the chemistry of your body in a positive way.
I also find it important to periodically check in with myself and ask, “Why am I doing Yoga? Why am I doing these strange poses? What is my motive? Am I feeding my ego or am I feeding my soul?” One response that helps keep my motives fresh and pure is to remind myself that each asana is a Gift to my body, a Gift to myself and a Gift to life. And that my practice is continually opening my body and Being so I can reach out and help others with more energy, clarity, and compassion.
The beauty of Yoga is learning to fly and soar through our life with the wings of Abhyasa and Vairagya and open our heart to the wonders and awe in our everyday experiences and embrace life fully, whatever happens, with En Theos.