Vairagya – Becoming at Ease with What Is

Sharon Conroy

Many years ago, inspired by Iyengar Yoga classes and a teacher's encouraging words, I set about establishing a home practice. Each night, I set the intention to wake up and go to my mat. Each morning, I was lured to do otherwise by the voices inside my head. One day, they might advise me to make phone calls before practice. Another day, they might tell me to give priority to a household task. Because I trusted them, I followed their advice. However, within a few weeks, I saw that the voices always found a way to sidetrack me from my practice. And the later I delayed it, the less likely the practice was to happen.

I began to suspect that the voices weren't as trustworthy as I'd always thought they were. Perhaps what they wanted and what I now wanted were quite different. At that point, I came up with a strategy to evade them. I'd wake up and immediately get on my mat and into a pose before I became fully conscious, before the voices could begin bombarding me with alternative suggestions for how to spend my time. The plan worked. While it took will power to get out of bed and onto the mat, I was getting there most days. And, while it took will power to detach from the thoughts that began to enter my mind as soon as I was totally awake, I was able to do so more often than not. With persistence, slowly but surely, over a period of about six months, it became easier and easier to turn my attention away from the voices. Instead of heeding their advice, I was able to continue with my practice.

I.15 drsta anusravika visaya vitrsnasya vasikarasamjna vairagyam
Renunciation is the practice of detachment from desires.*

Now, I can see that turning away from the voices inside my head over those first six months was an act, however small, of vairagya. If my teacher had told me to go home and detach from my desires, I would not have known how to begin. On the other hand, the concept of needing to practice the poses I was being taught in class was very clear and understandable. By establishing a home practice of Asana, without even knowing it, I had also begun to practice detachment. Abhyasa and vairagya are inextricably interrelated. Using the body as a laboratory, I was beginning the journey inward toward my soul.

While Guruji says that abhyasa is the path of evolution and vairagya the path of involution, he also says, in Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, that the two are "interdependent and equally important." (p. 64) As we practice Asana in the Iyengar tradition, methodically instructing ourselves to approximate a more ideal alignment, we are using our mind to penetrate inward from the inception of our practice. At the same time that Guruji distinguishes their differences in his commentary to Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, over and over again, he also proclaims the interdependence of practice and detachment.

"Abhyasa (practice) is the art of learning that which has to be learned through the cultivation of disciplined action…. Vairagya (detachment and renunciation) is the art of avoiding that which should be avoided. Both require a positive and virtuous approach." (p. 6)

"Abhyasa builds confidence and refinement in the process of culturing the consciousness whereas vairagya is the elimination of whatever hinders progress and refinement." (p. 16)
"A bird cannot fly with one wing. In the same way, we need the two wings of practice and renunciation to soar up to the zenith of Soul realization." (p. 16)

Abhyasa and vairagya form a unique double action. They are seemingly opposite processes which we must cultivate simultaneously. When we are able to do this, transformation happens.

Once I could get to the mat each morning, my practice deepened. However, the voices didn't disappear. In fact, they grew stronger when I was unsure of myself, more vulnerable. This was especially true when I worked on a pose that was new or difficult.

For about a year, Adho Mukha Vrksasana, full arm balance, was such a pose. There were times I could get up easily and other times I couldn't get up at all. When that happened, the voices escalated their arguments. They told me in many different ways that if I couldn't get up in this pose, then perhaps I shouldn't be doing yoga. Determined to learn full arm balance, I decided upon a strategy. Every day, I would practice the pose three times. If I got up, fine. If I didn't get up, fine. The voices saw things differently. Every time I didn't get up, they ridiculed me, told me that I'd never get the pose. After several weeks of this daily assault, I dismissed them bluntly and threatened harsher consequences if they didn't heed my words. To my own amazement, this worked.

My determination to learn full arm balance ultimately gave me my first experience of being able to practice abhyasa and vairagya simultaneously. On the mat, I was in the present moment and at ease with not being able to get up in the pose. At the same time, I was totally committed to evolving, to moving forward, to being able to get up in the pose consistently. I was holding the double action of abhyasa and vairagya, and my consciousness began to transform as the result of this work.

I'm very clear now that my goals and the goals of those voices were very different. The voices wanted to maintain the status quo, a place where they held a position of power and prestige. I wanted to move further along the path of yoga, towards something new and unknown. In retrospect, I think that my challenges with full arm balance marked a real turning point. Before, I'd always identified with the voices. After, I knew, without any doubt, that they were not me.

Later, as I became more familiar with the yoga sutras, I came to believe that the voices were my small self, ahamkara, the ego, fighting for its life. While the journey was just beginning, the spell was broken. I was no longer falsely identified with the ego. I was the Self. That realization, however, did not stop the ego from trying to exert its influence in many different ways.

The more I practiced, the more I saw that the physical body enjoyed the status quo, too. If I took my arms up into Urdhva Hastasana from Tadasana, the body took the path of least resistance. My thighs pushed forward and my shoulders moved back. The body evaded change. It reflected the ego's inability to see things as they are. In order to bring truth to the body, I had to use my mind in new ways. In order to maintain Tadasana as I took my arms up into Urdhva Hastasana, I had to intensify the lift of the thighs and press them back firmly, while simultaneously taking my buttocks down and my arms up. If I worked in this way, not only did my body change, but my mind penetrated inward in new ways.

At one point during the 90th birthday celebrations in south India, Guruji said, "Unless your defects are pointed out, you will not change." My teachers help me know where to look when they correct me. I can only change what I can see. If I practice mechanically, I don't see. If I am present when I practice and open to doing things differently, then I begin to see with increasing clarity. In doing so, the ego's dominion is gradually reduced.

While there are always things I need to "do" in a pose, in recent years, I've begun to see that there are also many things I need to "undo," to relinquish. If I grip my buttocks, there's absolutely no way I can broaden the backs of the thighs. If my eyes and tongue are hard, I can't penetrate inward effectively. I'm doing a better job now of balancing abhyasa and vairagya and, because I'm integrating appropriate actions more effectively, my practice has become less effortful over the past 22 years. I seem to be moving along the path in the right direction.

I've also come to see that the ego moves towards things that are familiar and tends to resist things that are unfamiliar or foreign. It behaves in a similar way on the mat and off the mat. It doesn't seem to be at all interested in transformation. Its primary concern lies in satisfying its own desires and in maintaining its own power, both of which are done best on home turf. The Self, on the other hand, resides in the present moment and moves fearlessly into unknown territory. It sees the truth and is at ease with whatever is happening. Given these differences, one way to measure our own progress is to notice how we deal with unfamiliar and foreign situations in our daily life.

From what I've observed, most of us need some time to become at ease in new situations no matter how dedicated our practice. For 12 years, I've organized weeklong yoga retreats at a Benedictine monastery. They are taught by senior teachers and attended by intermediate and advanced practitioners. Over the years, I've noticed that participants' personal likes and dislikes arise much more frequently during the first few days. Almost everyone experiences a certain amount of discomfort about the rooms or the food or some other matter. Then, by the third or fourth day, familiar with the setting, the participants become at ease with what is.

For me, vairagya has become just that–the process by which one becomes at ease with what is happening within the present moment. While cultivating such contentment takes time, it's fruitful to ask ourselves occasionally if we're making progress along the path. Can we let go of our personal or culturally induced desires and be at ease with what is happening in the present moment?

When a monastery retreat in our own country tests our ability to be at ease in the present moment, then we should not be surprised to discover that a trip to India can be even more challenging. We have been raised in a culture that tells us relentlessly that happiness lies in satisfying our external needs. Even when we are very clear that this is not true and are devoted to our practice, we have a lot working against us when we visit India for the first time. Ill at ease in foreign territory, the ego's likes and dislikes can begin to manifest quickly and become full blown in no time. We want things done our way, and we may not be able to get that no matter how we try to communicate our needs.

When we remind ourselves that India's culture, unlike our own, teaches that happiness lies within, all at once, we immediately see our complaints in a new light. How promptly the chai arrives and whether the new phone card works are perceived differently. We realize that this trip to Pune is about much more than taking classes with the Iyengar family and practicing at the Institute. We are novices in the practice of vairagya, visiting a culture where almost everyone may seem more adept than we are. Fortunately, with repeated visits to Pune, many of us find our ability to detach from our own likes and dislikes increasing with each visit. Yoga works. Slowly but surely, we are making progress along the path of vairagya.

Recently, I've come to understand that age is also helping me to become a better practitioner of vairagya. According to vedic wisdom, our life is divided into four stages, asramas. Guruji describes the stages as follows:

"They are that of the student (brahmacaryasrama), the ordinary householder (grhasthasrama), the householder who begins to learn non–attachment (vanaprasthasrama), and finally that of the man detached from world thoughts and attached to God (sannyasasrama). The hundred–year span of man's life is divided into four parts, each of 25 years so that one may adjust one's life to evolve through these fourfold stages toward the experience of True Being." (p. 285)

At 63 years old, I am in the middle of the third stage of life. There is no question that since my early 50s, I have increasingly sought out situations that allow me to move inward. I welcome opportunities to practice silence. My pranayama practice has become much more important, and I keep lengthening the amount of time I sit at the end. I enjoy the practice of writing in large part because I learn so much from exploring myself to explore the Iyengar tradition and our practice of Patanjali's yoga.

I've also noticed that friends my age are moving in similar directions whether or not they practice yoga. What I'm coming to understand is that these asramas are not stages of life that are peculiar to Indian culture. Rather, they are stages of human development. No matter what particular culture we inhabit, we each live through each one of these stages. The difference seems to be that some cultures support particular stages better than others.

In the United States, people tend to "retire" during the third stage, vanaprasthasrama. Although there's little support for learning non–attachment in our culture, from what I have observed in my own family, there is an innate desire to do so. I distinctly remember my grandmother wanting badly to sell her large home and move into an apartment when she was in her 60s. Unfortunately, my grandfather felt differently, and she had to wait until he died to do so. I also recall my mother telling me when she was in her early seventies that as you get older, you want fewer and fewer things "to take care of." She was clearly saying that possessions had become much less important to her over the years. As we enter the third asrama, it might be fruitful to ask ourselves what we can put aside or relinquish. Which activities or possessions have begun to hinder our progress?

In terms of the fourth stage of development, sannyasasrama, rather than becoming detached from worldly thoughts and attached to God, the elderly who live alone in our own culture often suffer from depression. When they become unable to care for themselves, they move into assisted living facilities where they are offered many kinds of group activities to keep them busy and socially involved. Then, there is little opportunity to be alone and move inward in a productive way. And, while one does hear from time to time of a husband who moves into a monastery when his wife dies, this is a relatively rare event in our culture.

When it comes to passing out of this lifetime, we are notoriously ill at ease with this natural process. Having spent time with my grandmother and stepfather in the months immediately before they passed on, I know for certain that there is a gradual lessening of ties to the external world as one nears death. And, as hospice workers have told us for many years, the dying person's gradual detachment from the world around them is usually harder on the family than on the one who is dying.

Contrast our own culture's discomfort with death to an Indian tradition that clearly acknowledges and supports the challenges of the fourth asrama. When I was in Pune last December, I gave my condolences to a shopkeeper friend whose father had recently passed on. As the man began to talk about his father's last days, he described a Jain tradition by which his father divested himself of all his possessions once he knew his time had come. The father called his son to his side and formally handed over to him all the property he owned–the shop, the home, and everything contained in both. Then, the father spent the greater part of his final days alone, preparing himself to leave this lifetime. His culture gave him a way to formally relinquish everything for which he had been responsible. In doing so, he could be absolutely present to his own passing. Similarly, in some Native American tribes, an elder will go into the desert to die alone when he knows his time has come. Or, a Buddhist master may sit in meditation knowing that he is ready to leave his body. All three ways of passing on support and respect the needs and challenges of this fourth asrama.

Many years ago, when I obtained a graduate degree in child development, I learned that it
is very important for young children to become attached to their primary caregivers. If circumstances prevent this from happening, children's development does not proceed in a healthy manner, either physically or psychologically, impacting the rest of their lives in major ways.

What I'm coming to see now is the inherent beauty in the overall course of human development. There's a natural tendency to engage, to attach, to become part of the community into which we are born. And, there's a natural tendency to disengage, to detach, to take leave of the community as we approach our final days. There's a perfect symmetry to our life.

Over the course of the first two asramas, our attachments grow, and we accumulate possessions. Over the course of the next two asramas, we gradually disengage from everything to which we have become attached and divest ourselves of possessions.

I feel fortunate to have had elders in my family who have been in touch, and at ease, with the natural progression of human development. And, I feel especially fortunate to have a mother who, at 86, seems to be moving through the final asrama with grace and awareness. She is a worthy role model.

While our own culture gives us little guidance on how to move through the second two asramas, the path of Patanjali's yoga does. It gives us rich instruction on the nature of vairagya. Understanding of those teachings deepens as we ripen in years in our practice.

And, as practitioners in the Iyengar tradition, each of us is amazingly fortunate to have B.K.S. Iyengar as our role model. Here is a man who loves life and is fully engaged in his practice of Patanjali's yoga as he moves into his tenth decade. Guruji has shown us where this path can take someone who practices with devotion and intensity for 75 years. Equally impressive to me is the fact that he has lived his life in such a beautifully transparent way, generously welcoming us to his practices and openly sharing himself with students.

May we use Guruji's life as an inspiration for our own. May we honor our teacher by giving generously of what we understand to others. May our practice deepen so that we can inspire our students as he has inspired each of us.

© April, 2009

* Quotations are from the 1996 edition of Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanajali
by B.K.S. Iyengar.

Sharon Conroy is an Intermediate Junior III teacher who has been practicing since 1986. She started the Iyengar community in New Orleans and taught there until Katrina. She now has a center in Grayton Beach, Florida. Contact her via email.