Yoga Sutra 1.15: Let Go of What’s Holding You Back

by Gisela Giardino

DRSTĀNUŚRAVIKA VISAYA VITRSNASYA VAŚĪKĀRA SAMJNĀ VAIRĀGYAM.
The consciousness of self-mastery in one who is free from craving for objects seen or heard about is non-attachment.

Vairagya. Non-attachment. This is one of the most important concepts in yoga and perhaps in any spiritual practice. Non-attachment is something we have to work on constantly. We are attached in large, obvious ways as well as smaller, subtle ways. We are attached to our loved ones and our belongings. We are attached to our beliefs and the outcomes of our actions. We are even attached to our thoughts — that’s why when your mind starts to wander, it’s sometimes very hard to let go of your thoughts and pay attention to the present moment.

Sometimes, when we talk about vairagya, people get defensive. They say, “Of course I’m attached to my husband/mother/child. I love them, and I’d be devastated if I lost them!” But what if that person you love needed something important like medical treatment, and receiving that treatment meant they would have to go away and you wouldn’t get to see them again? You would probably send them to get the treatment, right? Why? Because your love (your desire for them to be happy and healthy) is stronger than your attachment (the desire to hold on to them). So, it’s important to distinguish between love and attachment.

Another way to view attachment to loved ones is that we think the people we love make us who we are. Being in love is one of a few limited ways society teaches us to seek validation. How many love songs are there all about being unable to live without your lover? In reality, that’s not romance, it’s codependency. So cultivating non-attachment is a way of teaching yourself that it’s possible to love others and still be a complete person in your own right.

The reason non-attachement is so important is that attachment creates fear — fear of loss, fear of suffering, fear of change, fear even of new information. It’s extremely difficult to grow and learn when you’re in a state of fear.

In the end, vairagya does not mean giving up anything in particular. You don’t have to disavow your old ideas, beliefs, belongings or loved ones. You just have to understand that all these things may come and go from your life. Even if the person you love most in the world or the one truth you thought you knew disappears, you will still be you. Being independent of any attachment is how Patanjali defines self-mastery, and for most of us, it’s a pretty tall order.

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Saturday Special: Sutra Soup

atmosphere of a Tibetan monastery .... Tharlam Monastery shrine room at break, light filtered by incense, with western Tibetan Buddhist student reading, Bodhisattva Vows day, Boudhanath, Kathmandu, Nepal
Has your yoga teacher been talking about sutras and some guy named Patanjali lately? If you want to know more about the philosophy behind your yoga practice, join me on my journey through the sutras with a new reflective essay on them each week.

For example …

  • 1.1: Beginning the Journey (and beginning again)
  • 1.2: Quieting the Mind
  • 1.3: The Unchanging Self
  • 1.4: Keep Your Head On
  • 1.5 & 1.6: The Importance of Vocabulary
  • 1.7: Where’d You Learn That?
  • 1.8: Don’t Let a Misconception Ruin Your Day
  • 1.9: Be Careful What You Believe

When I started practicing yoga 14 years ago, my teacher often suggested that we read the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali or the Bhagavad Gita. But as a beginning student, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of translations out there, not to mention most of the writing seemed pretty dry to me. I’m still a far cry from an expert on the sutras, but by sharing what I’ve learned with you, I hope to point you in the direction of wisdom.

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Be Imperfect Together

Bridging Nature

I have to be reminded quite often about the importance of Patanjali’s first sutra: Atha yoganusasanam. Now begins the practice of yoga.

Now.

And now.

And now.

Begin again.

Every time I think I have it all figured out, I have to begin again. In fact, I think that believing you know what you’re doing is a sure sign that you need to start from the beginning.

Our practice begins now. And now. And now again.

Right now, I’m in my hometown with my husband. We’re staying at my parents’ house and spending time with my siblings and their kids, and as tends to happen every time I visit home, I’m reminded of the strangeness of family, our weird patterns, our imperfections, the assumptions we make about each other, and the unreasonable expectations we cling to. The hardest part is that I love these people and this place, and I just want everything to be perfect. I want us all to be the best possible version of ourselves 24/7 and make the best of this limited time we have together. And I get attached to that. Attachment creates suffering. I get upset when it doesn’t work out the way I want. I get hurt when my loved ones prove to be imperfect. I feel bad because I’m unable to make everyone happy.

So I begin again. Atha yoganusasanam. Because this is yoga, too.

Today, my sister brought me to a yoga class where the teacher turned out to be a high school classmate of mine — a really sweet person who I hadn’t been close to, but who I always thought was pretty cool. I was thrilled to see that she had become a yoga teacher, too, and a really good one! But my high school mentality crept in a little bit, and I caught myself comparing my practice, my class, my body, my strength and flexibility to hers. When I teach, I always remind my students that we are all in a different place on our unique paths, and that no one’s path or progress is better or worse than the rest. When I teach, I see my students striving for their personal best, and I feel honored to witness them doing this beautiful work. But it’s harder to apply that same appreciation to myself, my practice, my struggles. Ain’t that just the way it is?

Begin again. This time, with compassion.

It was an absolute blessing today to practice with my old classmate. She looked beautiful and happy and healthy, and I was so grateful to share that moment. Likewise, it’s a blessing to be here now with my family. We are imperfect, but to be imperfect together can be so beautiful.

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