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Practical Patanjali: Ahbyasa & Vairagya

It’s Wednesday morning in Montreal, Canada… I am spooning my 86-year-old Mother as she is having another severe panic attack… comforting her, I ask if she remembers how I used to push my body against hers for comfort and safety when she would spoon me like this as a young child, holding me until I fell asleep after a bad dream…

She manages to chuckle and smile between short breaths as her body continues to tremble and I run my fingers through her hair, trying to help her relax and feel safe… I whisper that it’s OK, I am here and I love her…

Now at this point, you might be wondering what this all has to do with Patanjali?  Well in my book, it has everything to do with Patanjali!

You see; if it wasn’t for the improved clarity of mind I have slowly and almost indistinguishably acquired over the last decade and change, through dedicated daily practice and detachment, I would be totally freaked out and unable to handle this situation…

As I continue doing my best to navigate through this phase of my Mother’s life, where every day seems determined to steal one more layer of autonomy from her, I realize it is when we are faced with such challenging situations that we fully appreciate the impact and value of regular practice over a long period of time …

So let’s unpack “practice” and “detachment” which according to Patanjali are the two pillars that can lead to mastery over the roaming tendencies of the mind (which is how he describes the state of yoga in sutra 1:2).

“Practice” is too narrow a term to clearly describe and fully understand the Sanskrit word “Abhyasa” which Patanjali uses in sutra 1:12 (even though it is the common translation found in most commentaries) … Abhyasa is more specific than the generic dictionary definition of “repeated exercise in, or performance of an activity or skill to acquire or maintain proficiency in it”… It is practice with the very specific aim of learning to “retain an inward, peaceful flow of mind, free from roaming tendencies” (source: “The Secret of the Yoga Sutra” by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait).

Patanjali also points out that there are no short cuts or instant gratification and that this practice requires steadfast effort, enthusiasm and vigor over a long uninterrupted period of time… but the beauty of it is that the more you keep committing to the practice, the more you want to continue because it delivers benefits that keep up with where you are and which you would not have been ready for, had you not experienced all the prior stages of progress in your practice…

As for “Detachment”, “Renunciation” or “Dispassion” which are common translations for the Sanskrit term “Vairagya”; they are all potentially misleading and could easily be misinterpreted as indicating that we should be indifferent about the outcome of anything and everything… I know those ideas used to confuse the hell out of me while growing up… What is the point of living if you must give up or repress everything that makes life worth living?  Don’t detachment, renunciation and dispassion mean you are not supposed to feel anything anymore? I would wonder…  again, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait clarifies the meaning for us in “The Secret of the Yoga sutra” stating that Vairagya means “cultivating a mind free from the coloring of deeply imbedded mental impressions (vasanas).” So it’s not that you must stop feeling anything or have no desire at all, but whether you let your feelings and desires cloud or color your mind and take control over your reactions to your circumstances… ultimately, one can reach a state where the mind is no longer disturbed by any factor within or around oneself…

Abhyasa and Vairagya basically are the two sides of the same coin which is designed to help us regain access to our mind’s original factory setting which can be described as luminous and stable, without any distortion… B.K.S. Iyengar sums it up beautifully in his commentary “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” when he states that “Abhyasa gives us the energy to climb the ladder while Vairagya allows us to pull it behind us.”

As for me, I say “enjoy cultivating Abhyasa and Vairagya when life is relatively smooth and easy; it will do wonders for you when the going gets tough!”.

 

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