August 31, 2013

How to Walk the Line: Abhyasa & Vairgya in Asana Practice. ~ Annabel Lang

I’ll start with the premise that asana, the postural aspect of yoga, is good.

Asana offers us contact with our breath and our bodies, an opportunity to build strength, flexibility, and awareness all at the same time, a platform around which to build communities and much more. 

However, though asana is good, there is potential for us to use asana practice in ways that are not good for us. Think about it this way—we can all agree that Starry Night, Van Gough’s famous painting, is good, but it’s good because we use it properly; we look at it with admiration and reflect on its beauty. If we were to take it off the wall and use it to bludgeon someone, this masterpiece, though intrinsically good, would now have negative consequences.

So it is with all good things and so it is with asana, except we are at greater risk of creating negative consequences through our asana practice because, if only on a surface level, asana is similar to Western exercise regimens. I’m certainly not asserting that exercise in our culture is intrinsically bad, but I would assert that we have a tendency to use exercise in ways that create negative consequences.

I’m talking about compulsive exercise.

I’m talking about startlingly common exercise addictions.

I’m talking about exercise playing a central role in the lives of those struggling with eating disorders.

To follow my earlier analogy, it’s as if Starry Night were shaped like a night stick; we would be more likely to slip up and use it in a harmful way.

Yoga, because it does not conceive of the body as separate entity, to be bent to our will (or the will of our popular culture) can actually offer us a way out of an unhealthy relationship with exercise. It certainly did that for me. But we bring our whole selves to the mat, and as products of our culture, we bring some of our cultural baggage with us. For me, this baggage typically manifests in the form of overdoing it—pushing too hard or practicing to achieve some externally defined ideal physical form.

When these tendencies show up in our practice, it’s actually a good thing, because this means our practice has brought these harmful tendencies up to the level of our awareness.

Once we are aware of these tendencies, we can challenge them.

Challenging these cultural artifacts is of upmost importance to retaining the integrity of our practice because otherwise they can take the reins and our asana can work against us. We want our asana practice to subsume the unhealthy aspects of our relationship with exercise, rather than these unhealthy aspects of our relationship with exercise to subsuming our asana practice. When the latter occurs, we are just spiritualizing our own hysteria (a line borrowed from Anne Lamont) and that is so dangerous because once we’ve done that everything becomes very tangled.

The trickiest part of this is that we gain so much from exerting ourselves through asana. Maximum benefits come from finding our edge and staying there, without going beyond it. So we don’t want to hold back in our practice, but we also don’t want to let our over-do-it demons take the reins.

It’s a very fine line. I’ve crossed it a hundred times.

Fortunately, the texts supporting our yoga practice offer us guidance as we endeavor to walk the line between doing just enough (as yoga prescribes) and doing too much (as our culture implicitly encourages). In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali gives us the twin principles of abhyasa (sustained practice over time) and vairagya (non-attachment). Abhyasa is a principle of discipline and vairagya is the principle of surrender; he offers them as equivalently important. I should note that Patanjali is not referring to asana here but is specifically talking about gaining control over the fluctuations of the mind. Still, I find these principles helpful when applied to asana practice. I like to picture them as two guideposts we can practice between.

Abhyasa gets us to class. Once we are in the room, it helps us gain maximum benefit by finding our edge. Vairagya keeps us from going over our edge; it helps us find child’s pose when we know are too tired to take a second inversion or helps us go to a gentler class if we are recovering from a sickness or nursing an injury or just incredibly exhausted.

It helps us calm down and let go if we (hypothetically speaking) find ourselves driving like bats out of hell and making questionable left turns in rush hour traffic because we have to get to yoga today or the world ends.

Although both principles are equally important, vairagya is the one that most helps me check my cultural baggage. It helps me notice when I am pushing too hard or practicing for an external purpose. The presence of these harmful tendencies doesn’t indicate anything negative about me as a person.

Like I said, we are all products of our culture. I grew up in the 1990s when everyone on television looked like this; it’s entirely understandable that I have some residual body image issues and, as a result, have used exercise, sometimes even asana, in ways that go beyond what is healthy and appropriate for my body.

I believe there is a reason asana practice has become so popular in the United States and I believe this reason is deeper than the fact that we were searching for an excuse not to wear real pants. Asana filled a vacuum for us. We needed a practice that allowed us to relate to our bodies in a compassionate and life affirming way. But the mat isn’t a blank slate, so, as a result of our conditioning, we are going to end up initially bringing into our practice all that we hope to escape through asana. I think this explains many of the recent disturbing trends in yoga—the body perfectionism, the injuries, the competitiveness.

But these trends don’t signal the end of yoga; they signal a necessity and an opportunity for us to heal ourselves through practice.

It will be a messy and complicated process, but as a community we have the capacity to practice through it. And, luckily for us, Patanjali left some extremely helpful instructions in the form of abhyasa and vairagya.

 Like elephant yoga on Facebook.

Assist. Ed: Jade Belzberg/Ed: Sara Crolick

{photo: carolinegault.com via Elin on Pinterest}



Leave a Thoughtful Comment

Read 0 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Annabel Lang