A complete understanding of yoga requires us to study and apply the concepts of abhyasa and vairagya. They are two of the main principles upon which yoga is based. In Sanskrit, abhyasa means “practice” of a regular and enduring nature, leading to a calm state of mind both on and off the yoga mat. Vairagya is inseparable from abhyasa in its necessity towards the goal of this yogic state of mind. It means letting go of the desires and attractions in our world or detachment from such desires. While abhyasa takes a yogi toward practice excellence, vairagya helps the yogi remain undisturbed to attractions of the world, thereby complementing the efforts of practice. A perfect balance of these two helps the yogi make spiritual progress. Vairagya is our May ‘Word of the Month’, so it will be discussed more completely next month.
In our modern, fast moving world, where our society is dominated by consumption and instant gratification, yoga is often mistaken for mere exercise. Yoga, an old and well established spiritual practice, has been reduced to a workout, devoid of its philosophical foundation. This is exaggerated on social media with photos we have all viewed of idealized beautiful, flexible, scantily clad people often pictured on the beach in various extreme yoga postures. Yoga does involve the body’s exertion through asanas (postures) and it does improve our health. But yoga is not merely physical exercise. Exercise may be the reason some people practice yoga, but exercise does not constitute the vastness of yoga.
Some of us here at Verapose, may have entered into the practice of yoga for the purpose of stretching and strengthening our tight necks and restrictive, hurting backs, but as we have stayed and listened to the wisdom of our teachers, we have discovered the possibilities that yoga presents us. This includes a calmer mind, greater ability to observe ourselves and each other, more expansive ability towards loving kindness and more effortless open heartedness. The possibilities for personal growth seem endless. This is why many of us have stayed with the practice and with our Verapose sangha (community).
The sage Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, defines abhyasa as the practice or discipline that is used to attain and remain in a state of harmony with the self. He recommends three essentials for practicing abhyasa: practicing for a longer time, practicing without interruption and staying committed to the practice. By maintaining a regular effort towards presence on the mat, you will find yourself more present in your everyday actions and more unshakable when conflicts may arise.
The concept of abhyasa is vital as it provides one of the foundations of yoga. If we practice asana without abhyasa then we practice without discipline, discrimination or effort. If these qualities are absent, there is no effect, no achievement in yoga. We merely create the shape of the asana on the outside of our bodies but change does not occur internally and the mind remains busy and agitated. However, constant repetition of a yogic practice reaches the unconscious and starts a quiet, deep transformation there. Once it becomes so deeply connected to the unconscious, meditation and other practices may become more effortless and natural.
Reflection: As you sit quietly, ask yourself some of these questions. Why do I practice yoga? What am I trying to achieve? Do I approach my practice simply as a workout? Is my ultimate goal to more deeply know myself? Who am I beyond all the movements? Who am I after I push away the business and noise of my daily life? Who am I once I remove the labels such as parent, teacher, lover, child, dog walker, committee chairman, investor, house cleaner? Who am I beneath all these labels and beyond all these appearances? What is my truest nature?
Abhyasa is a positive path, the path of action and effort. It’s an effort to develop and foster positive qualities, to transform ourselves toward more stability and equanimity. The practice is an exploration into our truest selves – a study of our body, breath, mind, heart and senses. Commit to the path of abhyasa and it may take you to another level.
Namaste, Joslyn Shehab, M.D., R.Y.T.-200