We spend our days doing, doing and well, doing some more. We are champs at achievement and of accomplishment. We give ourselves permission and reward others for blind effort and society rewards us for breakneck speed and achievement regardless of the costs. In yoga, we often hear that we are human “beings” not human “doings”. This is where the concepts of yoga brilliantly provides us with perspective.
In yoga, there is the concept of Abhyasa. This translates to practice or effort. This term is seen in the sutra texts of Patanjali starting at Sutra 1.12. Patanjali further defines the qualities of practice where the practice must be sustained for a long time with devotion, or the appreciation of the benefit. Sound reasonable? If you are looking for change this is the way to do it. Where then is the balance to check the rajasic striving, the do anything beyond all costs type of effort which most of us subscribe to or perhaps the only way we know? Patanjali couples Abhyasa with the concept of Vairagya. Vairagya is a practice of non-attachment.
Practice and non-attachment are a marriage of sorts; a beautiful balancing of effort and release. The union and juxtaposition of these concepts will forever intrigue me. It has a push and pull, a tension that makes me curious and at the same time both comfortable and ill at ease. After being introduced, studying and practicing the concepts of Abhyasa and Vairagya, my competitive athlete brain was utterly mystified by the concept of non-attachment in the face of effort and striving with any kind of success. And after years of practice, I have experienced the benefits. I find comfort in Vairagya, yet there are many times, I confess, when the finer details of non-attachment elude me.
The working title of this article was originally The Yoga of Doing Nothing, since most people believe that non-attachment is the opposite of doing something. I thought it was catchy, but it was also wholly inaccurate as non-attachment is a very active practice. So I ditched it. While most agree that non-attachment is yogic and also a “good thing”, as Martha Stewart would say, we are inundated and encouraged with the opposite. We are attached to our outcomes and our successes, and we are especially attached to failure and the possibility of failure. So much so that we might not even begin the “practice”. Perhaps cultivating non-attachment would also help us tear down the walls of our perceived abilities.
I recall watching Olympic coverage on television where the U.S. ski athletes were talking about how they trusted in their ski training program. They added that they had faith that practice would bring them to their peak performance. They also noted how trust in their training plan allowed them to enjoy the experience. More importantly, they felt they were at their best when they did not be worry about the results. The U.S. ski team had a very yogic thinking approach to their coaching. Perhaps that is why they were so successful. This is the practice of Abyhasa and Vairagya. I recall my joy for the athletes experience, considering how hard it is to compete at that level.
When you look at Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, etc. we see posts that encourage achievement. Even in yoga, we see individuals pictured in social media, in crazy poses, with retweets and accolades that come from the awe of these achievements. We all get swept up in the hype and begin to find ourselves competing with others both on and off the yoga mat. We relish the praise we receive for the number of hours we worked, the fact that we did a 15 minute headstand. This is not unlike the praise we receive when we proudly say we can work with little sleep.
This only encourages further one dimensional striving and less awareness. For those who engage in seemingly inhuman yoga poses, we cannot tell if their life is happier for achieving this feat, or even if they were injured doing this. I, for one, would love to see more experiences of “being” in the yoga world and media, but this doesn’t seem to capture the public as a whole. I am open to finding ways to do this and will support all means to this end.
Imagine, the brilliance of the experience, whether it is a yoga pose, a meditation, making dinner or doing volunteer work with greater awareness of journey and the non-attachment of the outcomes. The gem is being unattached to the accolades and being of aware of our inner life. What would happen if we did the work but were unattached to the outcome, praise, and criticism associated with the goal?
I have a disclaimer that practicing non-attachment is not for the faint of heart, and this introduction is intended only to let your toe dip into the big pool of the concept of Vairagya. Vairagya has many layers. A good place to start to explore this concept is in savasana. The side benefit of exploring in savasana is the restorative and healing benefits that comes from this active adventure in non-attachment.
Savasana as an opportunity to explore non-attachment
For 20 minutes each day find time to practice letting go, and explore the concept of non-attachment. Position yourself lying comfortably on your back. Ensure you are well supported, warm and place your head shoulders and hips on the same level. Lessen any physical discomfort with the use of props, such as blankets and rolls. It is important that you feel well supported.
Once comfortable, close your eyes. As you move from seeing to not seeing, notice your awareness changing. One of the senses now is withdrawn. Let the mind rest within the body and breath. This is where we look to be the “human being” and not the “human doing”. Take a few minutes to allow your body to settle. You can actively be aware of tight areas and take the time to let them settle into the support you have provided yourself.
Next take your attention back to your breath. You may notice that you want to change the breath. Be curious. You may feel the need to adjust, or even feel emotionally uncomfortable with the breath. That need to judge and to change is in each of us. This is where we begin our practice of non-attachment.
At this point, we often automatically look to control the breath, to force it to what we think is correct. We consider making it longer, employing the belly breath, or the 3 part breath, grasping to remember what the last yoga teacher said. We want to control the breath and the body to what we perceive as correct or right. Here is your turning point. Consider doing less. Consider not being attached to a technique. Consider just being.
Become an explorer, as curious watcher of the body and breath. You have no stakes in the results; you are unattached to what you need or expect. With each need to change or judgement of your experience that comes up, you let go of it and again you bring the mind back to becoming a humble witness.
As we practice non-attachment and letting go, we slowly become aware of all the layers of fluctuations. We are cognizant of all the holding in the body, mind and breath. Some of these sensations might be familiar or foreign to us. Continue not to change or attach judgement to the awareness. Continue to come back to being, not doing or judging.
The beginning practice in Vairagya is powerful. Permit yourself to take some time each day to not be attached to the sensations or thoughts, or outcomes.