In asana, the limb or aspect of yoga most commonly practiced today in the West, we learn to surrender fully into a pose. When asana is practiced with awareness, we are not just physically stretching, releasing, and opening, but also detaching from egoic I-ness to become dispassionate observers. The consciousness lightly moves from one body part to the next, sensing areas of tension and responding by relaxing or letting go, bypassing thoughts, comparisons, reactions. By developing discernment and fine-tuning the awareness, the body becomes the teacher.
Because asana is how most people experience yoga, it can become a gateway for deeper practices, and for integrating the eight limbs and other yogic principles with daily life. The Yoga Sutras (I:12 through I:16) tell us that vairagya (non-attachment) and abhyasa (practice) are essential to going beyond the egoic mind and recognizing true self. For example, as January stretches on, many of us find our New Year resolutions falling by the wayside. A common response is to push harder, to wrestle with the mind to overcome resistance or to “think positive thoughts.”
The story of the elephant-headed boy, Ganesha, is a metaphor
for cutting off the egoic mind.
But working with the mind, the yoga sages have said, is like trying to tame a wild beast. I think of it like the game Whac-a-Mole. Just as the moles win every contest, so do the thoughts whenever you challenge them. Zero in on one thought to zap it and another quickly takes its place. It’s more effective to bypass the thoughts altogether, to let go and metaphorically “lose your mind.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done. There’s no magic wand or instant solution; it’s all practice. But every day holds a multitude of opportunities for practicing non-attachment, and it’s through practice (abhyasa) that we realize non-attachment (vairaghya). Even something as simple and natural as the breath can be a teacher. Before every inhalation, there must be an exhalation—a letting go. If you don’t fully release the old breath, there isn’t enough room for the new, the in-spiration. Simple, yes? But also profound.
Make your New Year’s resolution or practice as automatic as breathing. Let go. Don’t think so much. Lace up your running shoes without dwelling on how cold it is outside, before feelings of resistance take root. Do the dishes before they pile up and become a trigger for displeasure. Walk into your office with a mind like a clear, still pond, free of resentment or expectations.
Too hard? Then return to your asana practice and let it be your teacher. Stop obsessing about your hamstrings or the person on the mat next to you and focus on your breath—especially the exhalation.
Notice how profound these little victories are and build on them, reinforcing healthy non-attachment. Go ahead—what have you got to lose? Except, perhaps, your mind.