In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, practice is addressed in three ways:

abhyasa – repeated practice performed with observation and reflection

vairagya – detachment

sadhana – discipline in pursuit of a goal

From BKS Iyengar’s translation and interpretation:

Abhyasa is a dedicated, unswerving, constant, and vigilant search into a chosen subejct, pursued against all odds in the face of repeated failures, for indefinitely long periods of time. Practice implies a certain methodology, involving effort. It has to be followed uninterruptedly for a long time, with firm resolve, application, attention and devotion, to create a stable foundation for training the mind, intelligence, ego and consciousness. (14)

Vairagya is the cultivation of freedom from passion, abstention from worldly desires and appetites, and discrimination between the real and the unreal. Proficiency in vairagya develops the ability to free oneself from the fruits of action. (14)

Non-attachment is the deliberate process of drawing away from attachment and personal affliction, in which, neither binding onself to duty nor cutting oneself off from it, one gladly helps all, near or far, friend or foe. Non-attachment does not mean drawing inwards and shutting oneself off, but involves carrying out one’s responsibilties without incurring obligation or inviting expectation. It is between attachment and detachment. Detachment brings discernment: seeing each and every thing or being as it is, in its purity, without bias or self-interest. (15)

The dynamic balance of practice involves both the vigorous, zealous, devotional pursuit of consistent practice, and the detachment from the fruits of one’s efforts. This means giving it all you’ve got, pouring your heart and mind into your practice every day towards a goal, AND being OK with whatever result you get from that effort.

Most of us are willing to do one or the other – we’ll put in the work, but only if it means we’ll get something out of it. Or, we’ll say “I don’t care”, and use it as an excuse not to go after our dreams.

Balance isn’t a destination to reach, or even a goal to achieve. Balance is a state of coordination achieved through constant attention, effort, AND letting go in order to surrender to change. It’s being open and inviting, while remaining unattached to outcome.

Headstand, for me, is the ultimate practice in dynamic balance. You must feel it, do it, and think it, or you will fall out of the pose.

I practice headstand every day at home, whether or not we do it in yoga class. I noticed yesterday that there is a moment in headstand when the only choice you have is to let go. To get your feet up in the air, they must leave the ground. It’s a moment your brain resists, hoping there’s a way not to face the fear, but get into the pose anyway (that would be attachment!). The laws of gravity and our own body’s design do not allow for such avoidance. You must kick, and risk leaving the safety of the ground you stand on in that brief moment. If you really let go, then your legs will literally FLOAT up the wall. If I am half-committed and try to do one leg at a time, the non-committed leg will prevent them both from getting to the wall. I must risk fully and passionately in order to fly.

Today it strikes me that the goal is not to reach the wall. The wall is a support and a guide, providing the mind the safety it needs in order to take that first full risk. But the real goal of the headstand practice is education in dynamic balance. Today I reached the wall with no problem, and as I worked on allowing my shoulder blades to descend down my back, and pulling my navel to my spine, I experienced several moments when my legs simply floated off the wall, suspended by dynamic balance provided by my entire body working in coordination.

My brain, programed to kick into ALARM mode once the safety of the wall is no longer in contact with my feet, sent a message to my shoulders to tense, as if to say, “Whoa! Danger! Go back to where you came from!” My feet tapped the wall, which was only a few centimeters away.

“It’s right there!” I told my safety-hoarding brain. I relaxed my shoulders down my back (which was really up, since my head was pointing down) and again brought my navel to my spine. Again my legs floated away from the wall. My weight shifted ever so slightly onto my elbows and away from my hands, head, and wrists.

I felt my brain saying, “Whoa!” again, but this time I calmly reassured it that the wall had not moved. It was my own body – and not the wall – serving as a living, breathing source of dynamic support as my legs effortlessly, almost magically, floated above my head. It took most of my concentration to keep directing my shoulder blades down my back and my navel in, while simultaneously breathing and throwing treats to my safety-binge-eating brain.

But I stayed there for about a minute or so. Then I smiled and floated down to the floor, congratulating every part of myself that was involved in the coordinated act of experiencing dynamic balance. One more act of deliberate practice. And play!

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