The theme we’re currently exploring in my group yoga classes is vairāgya - ‘letting go’ - which seems appropriate given the strange times we are living in. This Sanskrit word literally means:
vi – move away from rāga – desire (klesa)
It comes from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, first mentioned in YS 1.12 which states that stilling the mind (the goal of yoga) is achieved through discipline/practice and detachment.
For many of us, attachment is what causes our unhappiness; attachments to an image you have of a person or yourself, attachments to money or status, attachments to a certain time or place, attachments to a job or a way of life, attachments to our beliefs, politics and cultural systems.
Attachments cause unhappiness because we cannot control how long we keep them. Attachments are what make it so hard to accept change - once we have them, we don’t want to let go. I believe this is why many people are struggling with Covid-19 and the restrictions it is imposing upon us. We were totally attached to life we had, we had no control over the the arrival of this pandemic, its virulence and impact, and we cannot control what life will return to afterward – or when.
True vairāgya however refers to an internal state of mind, rather than to an external lifestyle, which is good news because it means it can be practiced by everyone, whether you are engaged in family life and career, or a renunciate! Everyone can learn to let go, detach.
What vairāgya isn’t is suppression or repulsion for material objects. My teachers Ranju & Dave call it ‘non-stick openness’. It’s not turning away from or rejecting our lifestyle and beliefs, it’s about cultivating an open space in which new possibilities can arise. It’s turning towards something, being open to what you want and need.
There are said to be 4 levels of letting go.
1. Be open to it Be honest and recognise what isn’t supporting you and cultivate new space. Sutra YS 1.13 goes on to describe vairāgya as a lack of thirst for material and spiritual promises – give yourself permission to let go of those promises! Make space for something else.
2. Still the mind Be open to the possibilities of the present moment. Your daily yoga practice helps with this, but you must be disciplined otherwise nothing ever gets done and nothing matters.
3. Be aware of triggers Notice the mind being drawn off course, notice when it is drawn back to those promises, and aim to remain centred without being knocked off balance. Trust Yoga as your support – know you will be held.
4. Maintain an effort It is very easy to weaken and we might easily let go of the necessary effort. Be careful of avoidance and stick with it.
So, here’s a simple, practical example of vairāgya, of me letting something go which isn’t supporting me. I love a cup of proper tea first thing, and my husband usually brings me one in bed. I am very attached to that. Every bit of it. But whenever I have an Ayurveda consultation it is almost always suggested that I have 2 cups of hot water first thing. It is a much better way for me to begin my day, but, honestly, I find it quite difficult! I do it for a bit and then slip back to tea (and blame DH of course).
Here’s how I can use vairāgya to let this go:
1. Be open to having water. Ask DH to bring hot water – it’s less hassle for him (I’ll work on letting go of the luxury of being brought a drink to my bed another time).
2. Be present, in the moment when sipping the cleansing hot water first thing. How is it, what does it feel like, how am I straight after having it? (It’s actually fine).
3. Notice the triggers such as being upset (I’m sure there are many things a cup of tea can’t fix, but I can’t think of one right now) or even someone just saying “But you’ve always loved a cup of tea first thing, Lisa! What’s wrong with that?”
4. Stick with it. If routines change, if I’m away, I can still start each day with hot water.
I won’t try and map this on to how we deal with a pandemic... I’m working through this too. But suffice to say that giving yourself permission to let go of the promise of whatever it is you are missing (attached to), and being open to the new may just help?