“What are you willing to commit to… and let go off?”
Guest Blog Post by Cedric
Abhyasa & Vairagya: Commitment and Letting go
Night & day, masculine & feminine, individual & universal, body & mind, joy & suffering, effort & surrender… Yoga, from the word “yoke”, is about bringing apparent opposites together, so we can enlarge our perspective. Practitioners and sages from ancient eastern traditions had already understood that trying to keep contraries separated was the main cause of human suffering. What I love about ancient yogic wisdom is how much it is applicable to our world, many centuries later. Particularly in a time of unprecedented and sudden “stop” that the current pandemic has brought to our modern societies, the value of these old scriptures for anyone interested in a bigger perspective as well as personal and spiritual development is unmeasurable.
The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali
The ancient text of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, probably the most commonly used piece of literature in any yoga training, holds many powerful tools and teachings. At first sight, this book might appear to the reader as a useful guide of what “yoga” (i.e., primarily the activity of what we call meditation today) is and can, and indeed it is a detailed psychosomatic guide of how to and why still the mind and thereby reconnect to our true nature. Yet, digging deeper and looking for applicability out of actual meditation will bring even more insights.
Recently I went back to this text during a course led by my favorite nondual meditation teacher, Sally Kempton. Although I had already came across this text twice during my yoga studies and a third time as now facilitating a teacher training course, new learnings keep coming up. At the heart of the Yoga Sutras is another set of apparent opposites, Abhyasa and Vairagya, which both underly the fundaments of the practice of yoga.
Abhyasa – Comittment
Abhyasa is often translated as “practice”- such as the practice you might do when unrolling your yoga mat or sitting on your meditation cushion. But what this word really points out is the radical commitment, the “self-effort” one needs to show in order to cultivate wisdom. I used to think this book was written for hardcore yogis or monks who wanted to be enlightened. What I realized, I must admit, is that it addresses each and one of us who holds the potential to live a life of deep fulfillment and endless access to inner wisdom. In a situation like the one we are now facing, Abhyasa reminds us to make a radical commitment to what keeps us healthy, balanced, safe, and sound, so we can more easily navigate the intense feelings and activation we are all, both as individuals and collectively, experiencing: fear, angst, anger, frustration, sickness, loss, and unprecedented changes. At a macro level, Abhyasa could be associated with the countries’ actions to slow all activities down and take drastic measures to prevent more spread of the virus and for safety. At a micro level, Abhyasa asks us to act responsibly as we face the reality of the situation: pure unknown.
In times of stress and new challenges, actions that can support our health, nervous and immune systems, and resource us are essentials. Yet, as I do, you certainly also can recognize that they take commitment. If you are curious about or already practice meditation, yoga, chanting, dancing or another form of mindful activity, now is a great time to hold onto your practice. A regular connection to nature, as intentionally setting time to mindfully rest during the day are also practices that will quickly reveal to you their beneficial effects. Manuela Ritsche, a somatic psychotherapist and meditation teacher, explained the immense help of combining every day moving our body and laying down on the floor (relaxation or savasana pose) to resource and rejuvenate our nervous system. Mindful breathing, healthy eating, a 20-min walk in your neighborhood and other healthy daily routines are other valuable examples. The yogis knew the challenges of commitment, else they would not have talked about it! So start by making your commitment feasible, such as a 10-min meditation each day, or a online yoga class 2 times a week, or a 10-min rest etc. Reach out to a friend and become accountability partners for each other. Holding each other responsible for your practice will bring stronger results.
Vairagya – Letting Go
Vairagya, typically translated as “renunciation” or dispassion, refers to the active, intentional choices of letting go. Again, on one level this teaching might be interpreted as the ascetic renunciation of one’s possessions and monk-type lifestyle of sleeping on a rock in a mountain cave for months (slightly caricaturing!). Yet, there is a whole other part of the spectrum that we all can relate to: non-attachment. It is not at all about giving up, but rather realizing the power of our attachment to what we think is real, true or certain. You might remember now a situation when you argued with a friend and held onto the fact that “you were right”, and you needed to prove them “they were wrong.” Perhaps, you know how hard it is to quit or change a habit, such as smoking, eating sugar, drinking coffee, excessive use of technology, etc.
To me, in our modern society, Vairagya calls us to wake up to the habits we keep doing, because it seems comforting, but truly this new piece of chocolate or social media check is a way we have to mask some discomfort, deeper inside. Automatic habits are actually pulling us away from looking at the roots of the actually suffering or emotional pain we are trying to avoid feeling. When that happens, as I decided to quit peanut butter and chocolate lately, and I find myself looking for something else, I try to catch myself, and if I’m lucky at it I pause, and take a deep breath.
In the time of pandemic, we can surely say we have been forced to let go, the underlying action in Vairagya. We all had to stop going to restaurants and cafes, concerts, yoga studios, birthday parties, dance classes, etc., not talking about work and school. This sudden change naturally brings a sense of panic, as the ground we know is seriously shaken up. In terms of meditation practice, which the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali ultimately deals with, Vairagya depicts the natural habit to hold onto thoughts, reasonings, to-do lists, and other great ideas that arise as we sit and try to focus. To me, Vairagya also underlies a sense of surrender and acceptance of what is completely out of our hands and then the work here is to open to trust the process, our practice, Grace/life/the universe/Nature/etc. Otherwise, we realize that not accepting what we cannot change just makes it worse. Deep acceptance brings a sense of ease and deeper within it helps balance our nervous system as we step out of “stress mode”.
Recently, as many of us had, I had to change plans and other professional meetings. Every week almost, I needed to make a new decision on when and how to report or cancel this activity. I can spend days ruminating the thought that “I” need to figure it all (including the “right” thing to do). But in truth, so much is just out of my hands. If and when I open to that truth, I immediately feel a sense of support, like someone is holding my back, and my breath becomes deeper. Vairagya is saying to me: “Let also this go.” So I am asking you. What thought, idea or habit have you been holding onto, although it is not working anymore? When can you open to a sense of trust in something bigger? For me what works great is looking at the sky at night, or at the ocean when I can, take a few deep breaths, and remember that there is so much greater work in the process out there. What works for you?
Working with feelings, I want to emphasize that Vairagya is not about dismissing strong emotions, which are calling our care and loving attention, but rather to cut through the noise driven by the fear of losing control and lack of trust. During this time, we certainly need to take a stand and make (hard) choices. Vairagya is a reminder of the power we have to un-commit ourselves to what is limiting so we can focus on what is truly important. It also secretly asks us…“Are you willing to trust?”
Here again, yoga shows us how effort comes with surrender, individual choice with universal support, commitment with letting go. I hope you feel inspired so you can tap into your own power of choice, engaging in resourcing and life-enhancing endeavors and thoughts, and use this opportunity to release what is no longer serving you and keeping you limited in that same power. Abhyasa and Vairagya, the two yogic friends that whisper to your ears: “What are you willing to commit to… and let go of?”
Thank you for your practice and contribution to this world! If you are curious, feel free to check my online 5-class series on Navigating the Unknown with the Five Elements.
I would love to hear how this post lands for you, and how Abhyasa and Vairagya are showing up in your life right now. Let me know with an email.
Namaste, and yours in love and light,
Cedric, HeartWise Yoga
Who is Cedric
Cedric is one of Julia’s loved yoga teachers here in Copenhagen. He teaches yoga and meditation with a passion for connecting the mind, body and heart together, online and in “real” in and around Copenhagen, as well as offers retreats, courses, and individual coaching sessions. You can read more about Cedric at HeartWiseYoga.com. For more blog posts and free audios or videos check his blog.