Abhyasa & Vairagya… or The Yoga of Effort and Surrender

The most important aspect of yogic practice is attention to, observation of and care for the breath. When you pay careful attention to something as essential and inescapable as your breath, it may seem elusive, impossible to observe because so inextricably intertwined with all your other sensations, thoughts, emotions, beliefs. And then, as you re-double your efforts to “pay attention” you do pin it down, but now it appears – and feels! – like a specimen butterfly, no longer what it is, no longer free, animated. You’ve lost – or lost sight of – what’s essential. And too often, this is where I give up.

But perhaps you are more persistent. You look away and try to catch it from your peripheral vision. When you sense its flutters on the edge of your awareness, you wait awhile waiting for it move closer… then you pounce! And it slides away like a soft butter, fragments like mercury. Perhaps you give up here, or maybe you are more determined and you lie in wait a while longer.

As you wait, you refine your approach. Perhaps you clear out the field where you hope to find your elusive breath. Perhaps you make it more inviting, changing your position or the tension in your body. And soon you feel the free flow of your precious breath once more. You are amazed at its variety, its motion and you simply smile, breathe and watch. If you’ve gotten this far, you are in the beautiful place of witness to your own mind.

There are many ways of speaking of the relationship between witness and content, but what it all comes down to is aware self-consciousness. Skillful use of our recursive mind – our unique and sometimes puzzling ability to watch ourselves. A dynamic balance of effort and surrender is required for this skillful practice. We always have the possibility of self-consciousness – this is inherent in the structure of our thought. We sometimes misuse it, ignore it, partially use it. But to cultivate a true witness requires both discipline and non-attachment.

Patanjali tells us that yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind, and soon thereafter tells us that the path to this union is one of effort and surrender. In our experience as temporal beings, opposites occur sequentially. In order to court the deep union between these opposing forces, we require a practice ground where we can apply them in turn, repetitively, observing the changes.

Your yoga mat is your laboratory, the place of your beloved, sacred labor. Your asana is your crucible. Today, maybe it’s Virabhadrasana – Warrior – Series. Your effort to arrange your feet, legs, pelvis, torso, arms, head, gaze (drshti), spirals, energy, attention, breath, smile, heart, kidneys, waist, heels, shoulders – whew! You’re sweating. You pause to sink. You remind yourself to forget, for now, what you look like. You allow yourself to feel what you feel like. This is the surrender. You adjust your effort based on your observation – you sink again.

The turning from one supposed extreme to the other is often represented in yoga philosophy as the flopping fish. The poor dying fish will never be able to be both sides up, but in the flopping it reveals itself fully. In the eventual death of the fish, the opposites fall away. Of course, so does the fishiness of the fish. Some of us are naturally better at the effort, some at the surrender. Remind yourself to return to whichever is your challenge. In the midst of melting, reach for something. In the midst of sweating, feel what your sweating for. In the midst of it all remember to smile. Send your effort on the surrender of your exhale.

May all your experiments bring you the fulfillment of authentic experience. Namaste (the beauty in me recognizes and revels in the beauty of you and we are one.)

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