Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Hang On, Let Go: Embracing Paradox

Abhyasa Vairagyabhyam Tannirodhah. -The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, I.12

"These mental modifications are restrained by practice and non-attachment" (Translation by Sri Swami Satchidananda). 

This sutra and the ones immediately following it are well-loved by yoga teachers. If you attend a yoga class regularly, you will likely hear your teacher talk about balancing the two wings of practice: steady effort and non-attachment. Because of the nirodhah portion of this sutra, you'll probably hear this in the context of, "why do we do yoga in the first place?" 

What is Yoga, anyway? Well, the second sutra tells us, Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah, "The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga." You know that stuff going on in your head all the time? Sometimes it gets to be too much? People have experienced that mental excess, that cloudy, disturbed feeling, as far back as they could write and teach. So, thousands of years ago, some people in India developed the system of Yoga to deal with that problem. Patanjali recorded the solutions they came up with in The Yoga Sutras. That text is the primary source of the philosophy being taught alongside the postures we do in classes. There you go. 

Today, in 2014, a lot of people are practicing some type of yoga, at the gym, in different types of studios, on retreats, at home. If you say, "I practice yoga," what does that mean? Is it a continuous practice? Abhyasa means a specific type of effort: a continuous, dedicated practice, reaching far beyond the postures. The practice can start out as a once-a-week commitment, but that's not really what Patanjali meant when he was describing yoga. When you practice regularly enough, it becomes a way of life, a way of breathing, a way of thinking, a way of doing. It is a discipline with an explicit aim, to pacify your mind so you can experience bliss and union with your true Self and with the Universe. That all sounds so good; it makes you really want it! When you want something bad, you really work at it, right? Give me that! That's for me!

This is where vairagya comes in. Non-attachment. Dispassion. This is the other side of abhyasa; the flip side of effort; the other wing of Yoga practice. I have heard teachers describe this paradox as "hang on, let go." How can you hang on and let go at the same time? As soon as you see those words, you may think of relationships. We learn to do this in dating, in marriage, with our parents and with our children. "If you love somebody, set them free," sings Sting. And so it goes with a yoga practice: if you love yoga, if you are working on your postures and your breathing and your meditation and climbing up your own bliss mountain-- you have to learn to ease up. Hang on so you don't fall down the mountain, but let go so the mountain won't ensnare you. If you cling too tightly to that mountain, you'll die before you reach the top. 

In all of life, we will experience more peace and happiness if we can balance our best efforts with a healthy detachment. As you think, so you are. Are you desperate? What are you hanging onto for dear life? What can't you live without? Hang on. But let go. In the end, what can we keep for ourselves? What will endure? Even once we reach the top of the mountain, what part of the journey will we be able to wrap our arms around, save for a scrapbook or record for posterity? We have to travel light to make it up the mountain. And we can't control what happens 100 years after we get there. We can't even hang onto our body for that long. Letting go isn't just good advice; it's part of reality. 

We don't want to be all effort or all detachment. Few people aim to be a Neurotic Type-A Perfectionist or a Total Slacker. So where do we find the balance? If you want to explore this on your yoga mat, experiment with giving your full attention to your breath and postures, moving with as much strength, grace and precision as you can, while also grounding yourself fully into the moment. You're not in a yoga competition. You're not working for your personal best so you can record it later. You're doing, not straining, holding on, not bracing. So you find the places where you can ease up, where you can close your eyes, where you can pause and rest, where you can relax into a pose. You learn to just be there with yourself, without seeking a personal reward. 

It's not easy. It's possible, though. Will you always be able to practice that way? Maybe. Probably not. I can do it sometimes. I have had true moments of peace and a feeling of effortless awareness in my practice. Most of the time it's not like that. I have also had those moments in my life, but most of the time it's not like that. I catch myself clinging and bracing a lot, actually. I ask myself things about my desires, like, "why do you want this? what are you trying to hold onto? do you think it will enhance or complete you, this thing, this accomplishment, this next up sensation? can you let go of this?" I can let go a little more when I become aware of the clinging. Just seeing it helps. 

When you can let go on your yoga mat, you are training yourself neurologically to let go in other areas of your life. Your relationships will improve (mine have). Your general stress level will go down (mine has). If life has ever seemed like a hamster wheel, or if you feel you've stepped out of the ring because it's too disenchanting, then "hang on, let go" may be what gets you back in the game. I have hoped this for myself. I hope it for you, too. 

I looked for a passage to read in class this week that would perfectly sum up the teaching of Abhyasa/Vairagya, Hang On/Let Go. I decided to share Chapter 2 of the Tao Teh Ching, but this wisdom resonates in all spiritual traditions. 

As soon as the world regards something as beautiful, ugliness simultaneously becomes apparent.
As soon as the world regards something as good, evil simultaneously becomes apparent.

In exactly the same manner, existence and non-existence give birth to each other. Difficult and easy define each other. Long and short form each other. High and low make each other distinguishable. Silence and sound make each other conspicuous. Front and back connect each other. 

Realizing this, one does not separate one's being from the subtle essence of the universe. One holds no preconceptions, and does things without insisting on personal conditions. One guides people by living in accord with the essence of life. One brings good things about, but has no intention of possessing them. One performs work, but has no intention to acquire personal power. 

When one's task is accomplished, one lets go of it and seeks no reward or recognition. Because one does not claim credit for oneself, one does not do any damage to oneself. 

-Translation by Hua-Ching Ni, 1995.

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