Practice and Detachment on the Yoga Path
This week in class I have been focusing on a powerful teaching from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Chapter 1, Sutra 12) – abhyasa (consistent practice) and vairagyam (non-attachment). This is a very liberating aspect of yoga practice that can be cultivated over time by just showing up and stepping onto the mat despite the maelstrom of life impacts that might be leading you in a different direction.
So much of what evolves from our practice of yoga is unseen and often indefinable. The effects creep up slowly and often present to us a gradual revelation. It might be a body that becomes more supple and less prone to restriction or a mind that starts to view the world with a different lense. Less grasping, less desire for ‘things’ and an openness to continual change without trying to control. All of these can come as a result of regular practice.
Why does this happen and how?
Abhyasa – practice, consistent undertaking of something, perseverance.
When we dip in and out of those activities or lifestyle choices we know are good for us (such as yoga) we don’t progress as smoothly along the path as we might if our actions were more consistent. This makes sense on a basic level. The more consistency we put into an approach or way of doing something, the more we build the neural pathways and positive samskaras (patterns) that support our wellbeing. If we fall off that path or keep jumping across to something else we never really achieve or maintain a focus that is going to support us long term. We don’t persevere. (The inability to persevere is one of the obstacles to achieving clarity of Mind according to Yoga). Persevering practice is the essence of abhyasa – and as we change, the practice changes with us.
Underpinning how well we do at showing up on the mat is the Mind. It is powerful and can become our master. It distracts us, makes excuses for us and allows us to get caught up with a ‘do’ mentality or a bypassing of responsibility. When this occurs we disconnect from what can truly nourish us and we begin to adopt an attitude of ‘this won’t work for me’ or ‘not today’.
Usually it is not the process that is failing us but our inability to persist (which brings us back the fickle mind – making decisions based on ‘other’ or ‘out there’ rather than ‘self’ or ‘within’.) Given the myriad of choices the world offers us, this isn’t surprising.
The key is staying with the practice (consistently, over time) so that the Mind can hold a focus, arrive in its own awareness and make key decisions to benefit ‘me’. Even if some days seem challenging.
If we are not cleaning the Mind regularly through our practice, we won’t even have the understanding that we need to step into a practice! Catch 22.
Another aspect of abhyasa is that the practice be appropriate for us. We are sure to fail if we step into something beyond our capacity or that may be doing harm to our body (or mind). This is often where the guidance of the ‘right’ teacher comes in. No action we take should be random or based on desire. Yoga clearly states that the right practice will offer the right results. If we are working against our nature or ability the path will be challenging and the true goal of practice (nirodah – a clear mind) will not occur.
This is a big problem in a modern yoga context where most people’s experience is a group setting where many are expected to do the ‘same’ despite all our individual differences. It highlights how personal practice (the traditional way of practising yoga) holds its own in the true development of inner awareness.
Vairagyam – detachment – I like to refer to it as non attachment – often to an outcome. This does not imply we do not care. Or that we act without thought. The very action of practising yoga sets up the unfolding of detachment because we have made a choice to be there instead of somewhere else. And usually we find an instant benefit with what we are doing at the time, on the mat. Mostly, we feel good, capable and hopefully clear. We become present – and find we don’t need to jump ahead to ‘what might be’ or ‘what comes next’. (Although we might notice the distracted Mind heading there). At the very least there will be some shift between the way we stepped onto the mat and the way we came off it.
And if there isn’t, then perhaps we have at least created awareness to perceive this. Which may offer up the question ‘How can I approach this differently next time?’ or ‘Is there something I can do to create a better experience for myself?’
Detachment develops with self understanding according to the Yoga Sutras (Chapter 1, Sutra 16). The more we develop pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), the more control we start to have over the senses and Mind. The senses are likened to horses, leading a chariot but bolting so that the driver (the Mind) no longer has control. The goal of practice is for the driver to regain control!
When we gain the ability to detach from the things that don’t serve us and reign in those senses, a deeper internal comprehension unfolds. Suddenly, the desire to surround our self with excess material needs or the ‘doing’ mentality becomes lessened. We may not rely on the distraction of the world so much to entertain us. We become happy within our own presence. There is an element of pairing back our ways that may serve us better.
This can take time and is never a perfect end game but the awareness that shows itself from our time on that mat throws to light many things that are not working for us in the way we might be living or perceiving. There is an opportunity to change – for the better.
How many of us have come off the mat with a revelation – sometimes quite dramatic – that was sitting under the surface just waiting for the space to be granted for it to appear? This is one of the mysterious things yoga has the ability to do – create space. The breath has a lot to with this – but that is a blog for another day. If we lack space we cannot grow.
Ultimately these two concepts of consistent practice and detachment are intertwined. Just like the wings of a bird, both rely on the other in order for flight.
There can be no practice without detachment. At its most basic level this shows itself in how we can step out of our day to do yoga. We detach from one thing in order to do another more powerful and positive thing. If we can continue, we learn to accept detachment in other areas of life.
There can be no detachment without practice. Unless the Mind can develop focus through doing the practice, it cannot develop the ability to let go, relinquish and see an alternate view. It cannot look within. The practice holds the structure for this to occur.
As with all concepts from the Yoga Sutras we can look at the macrocosm or the microcosm. In that we can link it to the practice of yoga itself (as the microcosm) or take it wider into a context of our life activities (the macrocsom). All are the same when it comes to the workings of the Mind.
The goal is nirodah – focus, attention. Self awareness. Harmony.