Last week I took a yoga class. As we prepared to begin and settled ourselves on our mats, the teacher announced, “Today we’ll focus on strengthening our arms”.
Inwardly I groaned. The internal monologue began: “Arms! Why do we have to do arms? All day I’ve been dying for some nice stretchy hip openers, and now I’ll probably have to do a million Chaturangas?! This is not fair.”
After whining to myself a bit longer the teacher said it was time to set our intentions for our practice. As I closed my eyes and searched for my intention I realized how ensnarled in judgment and negativity I had become in just a few short moments.
How quickly that happens! Just three simple words, “strengthening our arms”, had set off a litany of gripes, grumbles and groans in my head. I could easily have been sucked into this downward spiral for the entire class, or even the rest of the day. I decided to set as my intention vairagya: non-attachment.
It is the human condition to cling to what we like and to push away what we don’t like. We all want to feel as good as possible for as long as possible. While this is human nature, it is also the root of most of our suffering. Strive as we may to cling to comfort and get rid of discomfort, there inevitably comes a time when we have to deal with the stuff we don’t like. When we get what we do like, no matter how hard we hold on it will eventually slip away.
In our yoga practice we learn to deal with these habits of grasping and aversion by noticing our immediate reactions, our clinging, our pushing away. We notice and take a step back to just watch, unattached, observant, still and silent, without judgment. Then we let these feelings go.
This is the practice of vairagya that Patanjali refers to in Yoga Sutra 1.12: Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tat nirodhah (identification with the fluctuations of mind is stopped by practice and non-attachment). By resisting attachment to our reactions and feelings we realize that we are so much more than these fleeting, transitory emotions and thoughts. By letting go of grasping and aversion we open ourselves to a complete and authentic experience of the present.
In the grand scheme of things, the fact that I had to do some push-ups when I really wanted to do pigeon pose is not a big deal. Worse things have happened. But by cultivating and practicing an attitude of non-attachment towards a small disturbance such as this, I prepare myself for those moments when life hits me hard. Through yoga we practice being present without judgment towards the minor annoyances and inconveniences of everyday life so that in times of greater adversity, we have cultivated an inner strength and we have a way to deal.
The next time you catch yourself getting wrapped up in judgment try to pause, take a deep breath, and tap into your core. Not your physical core muscles, but your spiritual core…a.k.a. the soul, spirit, essential nature, authentic self, atman. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the place deep down inside that is eternal, timeless, unchanging, everlasting. This core is not your thoughts, not your feelings, not your emotions. It is beyond attachments, likes, dislikes, and opinions. It is vast, limitless, and free.
Notice when you start to judge; when you come up against reluctance, discomfort, hostility; or on the flip side pleasure, comfort, bliss. Tap into your core and just watch these feelings as they come, then watch them as they go. Allow yourself to rest calmly within your core, free from grasping, free from aversion. Let go in order to open fully to the here and now in all its vivid detail: splendor, pain, delight, despair. Let go in order to be free.
Originally published on elephantjournal.com, May 16, 2013
Christine Malossi is a yoga teacher and writer based in Manhattan.