Tag Archives: Yoga Sutras

The art of letting go

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.”

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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.

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The flavors of attachment

The other day, while working on piece about yoga and conflict resolution for a blog (www.yogabasics.com) that I contribute to a few times a month, I was reminded yet again what a rich resource Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are for dealing with life’s daily concerns. Though Patanjali compiled this collection of 196 brief sayings roughly two millennia ago, it remains fresh and relevant today.

As I was writing about how the sutras offer a path for resolving inner and outer conflict, I realized that the seeds of conflict, and of so many of life’s difficulties, arise from attachment or (in Sanskrit) raga. But the yogic concept of attachment is often misunderstood or considered problematic by householders. How, we ask, can we be non-attached (practice vairagya) and still love family members? What if I don’t want to detach from the things I enjoy, such as art and music, worthy causes, my work, etc.?

In traditional Indian culture, where yoga philosophy developed, the four ashrams or stages in life lead to renunciation. Most of us in the West will ever remain in the second stage (grahasta), as householders. But just because we don’t intend to renounce our worldly attachments and become sannyasins doesn’t mean we can bypass raga/vairagya. Every day as a householder brings new opportunities for considering various aspects of attachment and non-attachment.

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Even Nature can teach us about the art of letting go gracefully.

For instance, much of the conflict we experience in life—with others or within ourselves—arises from what Patanjali calls asmita. This word is often translated as “egoism,” another easily misunderstood concept. In terms of yoga, “ego” doesn’t refer to being prideful. Ego is simply the personality or shell that we’ve unconsciously crafted over a lifetime. Asmita is mis-identification with (and attachment to) this false sense of self. When this ego structure feels threatened, it tends to react in certain ways—anger, fear, retreat, stonewalling, etc. Conflict—inner or outer—is inevitable. Yoga practices lead us away from this false identity to the true self, a process of detaching that grants us healthy perspective. We become dispassionate observers, noticing what pushes our buttons and choosing our responses instead of reacting blindly.

Another flavor of attachment is abinivesha, usually translated as “clinging to life.” Recently, I’ve seen this as holding on to “the way things used to be” (even if “the good old days” never really were that great!). Resistance to change, fear of letting go or losing face, suspicion about people and places that are new or different—with these fear-based attachments we box ourselves in. Like asmita, abinevesha is another obstacle (klesha) to growth, and another area in which a householder can practice non-attachment.

We also cling to things—not only possessions but also information. I’m particularly guilty of the latter; my bookshelves are crammed with reference material, and I could happily spend years researching a book without finishing the writing. In the U.S., hoarding is a common enough cultural meme that entire television series focus on it. This form of attachment is one householders face in myriad ways, large and small. (Think of sorting through your junk mail or cleaning out the refrigerator as a yogic practice and it might not seem so trivial or tedious.) In fact, the opposite of hoarding—aparigraha or non-covetousness—is one of the five yamas, the ethical guidelines that mark the beginning of yoga’s eightfold path.

Next: The yoga of letting go

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Gardening and karma

Over the weekend, I spent some time digging out silverleaf nightshade, a pretty plant that loves the hot, dry Arizona summers. It can quickly overtake other plants; hence, it’s largely considered to be a weed. Last year, it dominated an entire corner of the backyard, reseeded after years of benevolent neglect by previous property owners. This year, I’m continuing to battle the pesky plant.

Solanum eleagnifolium is popularly referred to as poisonous nightshade because its highly alkaloid leaves and fruits are toxic to livestock and humans. A member of the same species as potatoes, eggplant, and tomatoes, its ripe fruits look like miniature yellow tomatoes. Any illusions I’ve had about letting it be and enjoying its lavender flowers and gray-green foliage are dashed by the memory of a child holding up a handful of the fruit, her mother asking me (I was then working as a docent at popular archaeological site) if it the little girl could eat the “pretty berries” she’d picked along the trail. Nope, not growing nightshade in this yard, thank you very much.

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One way to get rid of silverleaf nightshade is to burn it, destroying plants and seeds, and that’s simply not an option in a residential neighborhood, especially when the humidity is low and the winds are high. That leaves digging it out, plant by plant, before the seeds have a chance to drop to the ground. When the sprouts reach a certain height, they fight back with sharp spines that penetrate gardening gloves. Digging them out of the dry, rocky soil is hard work and not especially pleasant, so naturally the mind wanders, and I find myself making comparisons to the yogi’s work of mitigating karma.

My teacher, Rama Jyoti Vernon, has often said that through our yoga practices we can scorch the seeds of karma before they take root. The cycle of karma, basically the law of cause and effect, has three stages: prarabdha (likened to dharma or destiny), kriyamana (the result of free will), and sanchita karma, the accumulated karma of this life and all previous lifetimes. The seeds of sanchita karma (our actions and thoughts) have been allowed to ripen and fall to the ground (the subconscious), where they will remain dormant until the conditions are right for them to sprout and reappear.

Our job as yogis (and gardeners) is to eradicate the seeds so that they can’t germinate and perpetuate the cycle. As householders, however, we must do this without withdrawing from the world of action, just as Arjuna chose not to withdraw from the battlefield in the Bhagavad Gita. Like Arjuna, we can keep the karmic seeds from sprouting by following the karma yoga path that Krishna outlined in the Gita. Krishna (acting as Arjuna’s charioteer) instructed him to find the inaction within the action. This means going beyond what binds us to an action, i.e., performing an action in an egoless state, without attachment to praise or blame or even to results. We perform an action solely for the action’s sake.

This is harder than it sounds, and we need the fiery determination of tapas to practice karma yoga. It is extremely difficult to break free of attachment–or aversion, fear, delusion, separation. These are among the vrittis or mindwaves that Patanjali refers to in the second (and most definitive) yoga sutra: Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah, or “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.” In subsequent sutras, Patanjalini tells us how this is done.

We can certainly begin practicing karma yoga on the mat, noticing whenever we are “performing” asana for goals or rewards, or whenever ego (self-identification) is engaged through judgment, comparison, over-efforting, etc. But why stop there? Every word, every thought, every action presents us with another opportunity to practice. Yoga is in everything we do, from practicing Downward-Facing Dog Pose to pulling weeds.

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