The Season of Vairagyah 2018

Lessons from a set back

Vairagyah is translated as letting go, detachment, dispassion, non attachment, without color, remembering the Self (Sutra I.12 to I.15) [1]

Pain and suffering

Yoga practice sensitizes us to catch the moment when we transform pain into suffering.

We experience many kinds of pain: including physical (hunger, broken bones, illnesses), and emotional, (rejections, loneliness, fears, betrayals). When our mind fills with stories of past pains, we transform the pain in the present moment into suffering! The story we tell ourselves about the pain, takes a life of its own and can make us relive our suffering.

As we get skilled at observing the mind, we become aware as it creates a story out of our pain. By retraining our mind we can diffuse the story of suffering as we bring it back to the present, to the feelings of pain in the present moment. The heart beat, the sensation in the leg, the minute feelings with which we create the story.

The power of yoga is to train us to catch the moment that mind began spinning its sticky thoughts; and with self compassion, friendliness and humor, gently redirect our mind to the concrete moment of experiencing our breathing patterns, our bodily sensations. Yoga not only transforms negative habits into positive ones so that we can live the best life we can, it also illuminates the process of transforming pain into suffering.

Practice is the key, it cannot be hurried; like the breath it is with gentleness that we inhabit it. Pantajali teaches that practice goes hand in hand with detachment (Sutra I.12). To fully live we also need not only to practice with ardor but we need to detach from the practice itself!! We need to be non attached to the fruits of the practice, as Nishala Joy Devi writes we need to remember the bigger picture. Varyagyah has always been a difficult concept and reality for me!! I had the “good luck” to find myself in a situation these past months, where this aspect of yoga came knocking at my door with renewed intensity. I could not ignore it anymore.

For a year, I had prepared for my Junior 1 assessment. For a year, I had devoted myself to an intense practice of all the limbs of yoga, and as my assessment date was approaching, the intensity grew. Two weeks before I was supposed to fly to Arizona for the assessment weekend, I broke my left foot, a Jones fracture (gratefully not to the cortex, so no need for surgery).  Suddenly, in a blink of an eye, my situation changed drastically! I realized that it meant no assessment for me in 2018. Of course I was disappointed. So here and now, after a year of Abyassah (practice) I needed to enter the world of Vairagyah, letting go[2].

What are the steps to “letting go,” so that we do not transform pain into suffering! What is it that we need to realign when in the vairagyah season? [3]

Practice is a long process, and vairagyah needs to be reinvented as a long process itself, so I need to develop habits of the mind that will allow me to enter the process of remembering that change is supreme and accept reality as it unfolds. Below are a few of the ways I am developing my vairagyah muscles, creating new habits of the mind and integrating vairagyah into practice.

Closing a door, opening a door

I have always seen letting go as closing a door and opening a new one. Doors seem to close instantly, quickly, as with my accident. But somehow doors open slowly and we need to develop patience with the process. To open doors we need to become aware that they are present, we need to see clearly what door can be open. Seeing clearly requires a movement back into ourselves, a reckoning, a retracting, a soft inhale. It needs softness, patience, trust and clarity. We need to slow down and inhabit the new reality without running away from it.

Accepting change as the backbone, as the mid line of our lives

Accepting that change is the norm requires being agile, nimble on our feet and in our mind. How do we learn to relish the movement of the spine and the movement of the universe when they are not what we wish? With our mistakes and follies as teachers, we cultivate humor and a good dose of humility. We come to accept our restrictions and the restrictions of our universe. We accept what cannot be changed and appreciate the wisdom that these moments as well will transform! Accepting change is seeing that every action comes with a reaction. How do we become proficient in learning to be at ease with the movement of life? I tend to see myself as inhabiting places, I do not focus on movements between these places. Learning to observe and feeling the movement, the fluidity between the concrete places helps me pay attention to the flow of life. As I learn to pay attention to the ground, or the sky and not to the objects, places in it, I transform. Paying attention to getting to the places I inhabit, helps me grasp that we are all in motion, and that the place is just another movement that we solidify in our mind. In yoga, we not only pay attention to the final pose, (if such a final pose exists) but  also to the getting in and out of the pose. When we maintain the pose we see that behind the maintaining there is a balancing of myriads of action. We are never really static! When we pay attention to the silence, we see that maintaining the pose is an endless balancing act, full of noise.

Accepting the order of life is changing perspective

The Greek philosopher Heraclites said many centuries ago. We cannot enter the same river twice. I never fully understood that old saying and now I am comprehending, accepting the wisdom of focusing on the movement and not only on the places themselves. We want to grasp the places but it is in the going and coming that we live. The place exists in our mind as we define it as such, as static. The river is always flowing and the banks always in movement, they seem unchanging until our eyes get sensitized to see beyond the stability. We are endlessly moving toward stability, accent on “endlessly”! (balancing the Gunas sutra I.16). As we accept this order of life we transform and learn to shed what is not needed anymore, like the idea of getting back into the size 2 dress that we wore when 20. Maybe we need to cast off the relationship that is not nourishing anymore, the fear of getting old, of fading and let go of our ideas about the perfect pose. Changing perspective help us transform our stories of suffering. Learning to see the beauty in a few pebbles is the key to accepting our place in the order of life. The perfect pose is a pose where we bring integrity into the process. Paying attention with integrity to the movement of life itself is an act of prayer. There is beauty all around us, we just need to open our eyes. We are all in motion, nothing keeps still and by becoming friendly with that idea we enter the rehearsal for the major transformation of our lives, abinevesah (fear of death) and we live fully in the present with passion and dispassion intertwined together. We let Vairagyah be part of our practice moment by moment. 

Developing a healthy relation to pain and suffering

Accepting the pain without creating a story of suffering is our challenge (sutra II.1). Pain is not what we want, but pain occurs and comes to our doors without being invited. When like a spider I start spinning my sticky threads, I create my own suffering. Discernment allows me to choose what action is needed in the moment to help my situation, and I need the practice, the training that will allow me to open the right door.  And there is a moment before we open that new door, that all the possibilities are there and by choosing one, we let go of all other possible. As BKS Iyengar writes beautifully in the last chapter of Light on Life I will die, there is nothing I can do about this!! My challenge as a human is to quiet my mind enough so that I do not die a little every day but I learn to live with passion and dispassion a little before I die:

“I will not say Die before you die” I would rather say “live before you die, so that death is also a lively celebration”  B.K.S Iyengar Light On Life p. 266

[1]  Vairagyah is translated  by B.K.S. Iyengar as detachment,  by E. Bryant as dispassion, by Carrera as non Attachment, by Meta as without color; and by Nishala Joy Devi as  remembering the self. There are many other ways to translate this term..

[2] Rohit Meta in I.14 and I.15 proposes to see Vairagyah and Abyassah as occurring at the same time, not one after the other. He sees Vairagyah as a condition free from all motives (p.29). A condition that cannot be defined but only can be indicated, pointed to. Meta presents Yoga as a state of living in the present where we act from what is in front of us and not from past or future motives. A state which is free from past stories and future worries.

[3] To my wonderful friends and colleagues Jennifer Flesher, Betsy Hecker, Sue Mulski, Shari Goldin, Victoria Saldanha, Nathalie Greene and Elizabeth Ross  who are taking turns demonstrating for me in my classes, thank you!

Are you ready to turn disappointment into an appointment?

A student asked me last week “please give me a pep talk”.  Don’t we all feel this way sometimes!  I asked: why do you need a pep talk?  She said, “I have been working so hard, I am practicing for some time, and I still do not feel improvement!!”  Her words resonated with me a day later, when I came upon a quote that I had penciled in my notebook back in 2005 when I attended the National Iyengar Conference in Estes Park.  The words of the well-known yogi, BKS Iyengar seemingly jumped off the page, “Live with disappointment one day it will turn into an appointment.”

Sometimes we all have negative thoughts of question and doubt, “why am I doing this yoga practice?  It helped so much and now it does not anymore.”  These negative impulses regarding our practice are here to stay.  We hit them time and time again, when we are sick, injured, or feeling down.

Part of a yoga practice is to know that some of these feelings will always be there and that we need to move through them.  A skillful response to these impulses is not to let go of the practice; on the contrary it is to continue practice.  It is when we are in physical or emotional pain, when things do not go our way that our practice helps; actually it is for these moments that we have practiced. 

I certainly felt this way last spring when I was suddenly in an accident that left me with a broken pelvis and foot, unable to even stand for quite some time, let alone practice yoga asana.  But in fact,  I did practice, I adapted to the circumstances , to the new me, the broken me. I used my breath to still my mind.  Everyday I stretched what I could, lifting my arms over my head in bed, lying over a bolster to keep my chest open. My main practice was stilling my mind with my breath. I was ready to turn this devastating disappointment into an appointment to reacquaint myself with my breath, my body and my awareness. 

Faced with utter disappointment at how my body was changed in an instant, I found that the discipline of yoga helps us to learn to redirect the mind, so that these negative thoughts do not win the day.   We have many tools given to us by ancient teachings of yoga from Pantajali, but the first is to stay consistent and perseverant with our practice.   An understanding can come to us that these thoughts are but our mind rebelling as we try to redirect it. 

So yes, remaining constant and sticking to one’s practice may actually help in maintaining our positive outlook and perspective on life.  We all know how positive we sometimes feel when everything is going well and we are feeling our most strong and healthy.  So it was ever more important in my recovery to keep my chest and my heart open as I was slogging through the daily grind of physical and emotional recovery.  In fact, I looked at these daily sessions as an opportunity to have an “appointment” with my own best self.  

Tomorrow is another day, so yes enjoy this appointment and be ready if you find that it arrives today!   Have faith that when we lose the thread and feel less directed at times, that it is with friendliness (Maitri) and compassion (Karuna) that we bring our scattered mind back to the task.  You may just find, as did I, that time after time with practice and perhaps a pep talk or two, we can all change our outlook on life.

Finding Peace and Contentment

Mary Oliver’s words “ something has pestered me all day and I thought my heart will break”… Is a well-known situation were we find ourselves at loss with the world, trying to find the way back to our center amidst heavy, turbulent waters. Oliver suggests being embraced and embracing nature to find healing place. Her words, sacred by her potency can sooth a broken heart. Sutra 2.32 teaches us that the five personal principles of positive action can also soothe one’s heart.  Purity, contentment, a disciplined life, study of sacred texts and worship of god is what we called the yoga of action. As I feel my moods shifting, today, contentment seems pretty elusive! So what is this quality of life that yoga sutras nudges us to adopt? First, the text says is a positive attitude and it is not passive satisfaction! It is and active act of faith that we can aim at balancing the psyche, and find contentment.   I am not getting very far, I think okay so my practice, my postures and breath practice, my ethical living all these aspects will with time bring me contentment. Is it is? These are almost the same principles that were given in sutra 2.1; the only difference is that here to achieve them, we need purity and contentment? What is so potent in contentment as a road to our psyche to our heart? Yogis have been telling us that if we work hard with steadiness, we study ourselves and we let go of our selfish motives, we will find contentment. So what about living in the moment, how do we balance each one of these moments to achieve contentment? Yesterday as I was looking at myself in the mirror, I saw my imperfections and my aging body, and suddenly as I was contemplating this with a critical eye, a voice came in and saw the fact that my arms are strong, my legs are working, my heart is pumping, my smile is catching and I saw how much more there is to my embodiment than the real imperfection of age. So that is the voice of contentment that we need to practice, I am content with what is, as I am choosing to skillfully bring myself to balance. Contentment in the yogic sense is not accepting calamities, and pains without looking for remedy, but it developing a mind that chooses gratitude for the process that I am taking. Just being aware that I have many choices but that I am choosing to hear the voice of gratitude, is what brings contentment. I am doing the best I can and  I am accepting what is at this moment while also striving to make the next moment the best it can be. This awareness is what brings us contentment!

Reflections on practice and effortless effort

Tapas will power, discipline is the first element of the Yoga of action (2.1) described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras*.

We need effort to open the body, to extend tired muscles, to expand our chest and we need effort to stay with the practice. If that would the only story, we would burn out quickly! As we stick with the Tapas we are coming face to face with another aspect of yoga. Releasing in the middle of the effort. As we exert our muscles and quiet our mind, the pose we seek, will only bloom if we can relax into it.  “Be firmly established in a happy space” says Bouanchaud. It seems a contradiction in terms: how can we both be effortful and soft inside? This is the mystery of doing yoga. I learn to work to my own capacity with the limitations of my specific embodiment, as I reach for my toes, and feel my back muscles “screaming”, I listen to the voice inside or of my teacher to stretch my limbs to their full potential, and then I let go. As I learn to observe the sensations and identify the moment where I just need to exhale, I become the pose. Yoga is not only about the external beauty or esthetics of the pose, it is as well the subtle internal process of recognizing that now is the moment to accept and relax into the effort while maintaining it. It does not mean that I stop my effort, as I let the releasing wash over me in the middle of my effort that is when the pose exists within me and beyond me.  That elusive state might last a second or less, but it is a very potent moment as it brings illumination that can last for a lifetime and provide me with the faith I need to get back to my mat over and over again!  It is then; at that moment that I am learning what effortless effort means, that I accept the sweat needed and integrate the pose into myself.

We are not talking Herculean struggle, achieved only by luminaries; every one of us, working skillfully to their own edge, can learn to relax into that effort.  Then we can move toward sensing how this practice brings us closer to the infinite, the quiet within. The gift that this practice offers emerges when we relax into it. We need effort, observation and skillful actions no question about it, and we also need to recognize that all this effort without a relaxing breath, will not let us experience all what yoga can offer. Learning to catch this elusive state comes with practice. Some of us might have experienced uplifting feelings of grace in a pose. A month ago a very excited student texted me that she had had for a moment like that, she had the feeling of complete alignment of her spine, complete integration in her head stand. She felt immense joy washing over her and needed to share it.  I have had a few of those moments in my 20 plus years of practice.  During a backbend workshop many years ago after hours of “donkey work”, muscles screaming suddenly out of nowhere, as I ascended for my last wheel position, my heart opened, my head quieted,  and for a glorious moment I was the pose and I experienced a glimpse of what grace is. We all recall these precious moments, and not only during asana practices. When a newborn open her eyes for the first time and her gaze latches on yours, you know that you are just witnessing the mystery of life.

Yoga practice provides us an arena to practice so that when a moment of grace comes your way, on the mat or off the mat, you will just grab it and be thankful forever.

*2.1 Accepting pain as help for purification, study and surrender to the Supreme being constitute Yoga in practice. Carrera

 2.46 The posture and firm and soft.  Bouanchaud