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Abyhāsa and Vairāgya: Perseverance and Acceptance

One of the most important lessons that a Yoga practice can teach us is when to persevere with our efforts to achieve or change something, and when to accept and let go.

Yoga philosophy gives us some useful concepts to consider: Abyhāsa and Vairāgya.

Abyhāsa refers to continuous, sustained and consistent practice. (In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, this refers to spiritual practice towards quieting the mind). In short, Abyhāsa is perseverance.

Vairāgya refers to non-attachment, or to releasing and letting go. The literal translation is “colourless” and it means to not let our attachment to desires “colour” our experience of sustained practice, but to accept what is.

Here’s my take on the two concepts.

My understanding of Abyhāsa is to dedicate yourself to steady practice of something. This might be a pose, or a breathing or meditation technique. But there are no quick wins here! I am guilty of too often trying something for a few weeks and giving up after not seeing any progress. Or doing something once a week and expecting miracles. Importantly, practice must be continuous and done over time. (The very definition of perseverance!)

Vairāgya in one sense is about remaining present to everything that arises as you practice: the self-doubt and criticism, the ego and judgements. And then not letting those things colour the experience. But I also take it to mean non-attachment to the outcome (of the practice).

Non-attachment to outcomes is something I find very difficult. In our achievement oriented Western society, we learn that achievement of a goal, or at least progress towards it, is to be admired and celebrated. But too often we start to base our self-worth as a human being with what we can achieve or produce. This is dangerous territory.

What we might learn from the concept of Vairāgya is to practice with dedication towards an outcome but letting go of the expectation that we will achieve that outcome. Aspire, but don’t cling. Celebrate progress, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t master the goal. Alternatively, Vairāgya might have you releasing or letting go of the desire to change something in the first place, and instead come to a place of acceptance.

Personally, I have found these two concepts most useful in helping me to discern when to pursue a change I seek, and when to accept that I cannot change something. And like most things with yoga, these teachings start on the mat but the insights gained can then be taken more widely into our lives.

I recently came across a video I had filmed of myself in 2016, attempting to practice some arm balances. I had decided that I needed to master crow and side crow, because I really struggled with them. I was going to practice regularly and document my progress. It’s fair to say that at that time, I was very attached to the outcome.

I can’t say how long my dedication to the practice lasted, because this is the only video I could find. But I can say that now, over 7 years later, I no longer desire to “master” crow pose.

For one, I now have the anatomical understanding that my body isn’t really suited for crow pose. I recognise that some of my limitations could be improved with dedicated practice – shoulder, core and adductor strength, to name a few. But I also now know that the limits I have with wrist flexion are a simple fact of the shape of my bones, and the physics don’t work in my body. There are workarounds I could take (wedges under my wrists for example). But I’ve chosen to accept that this isn’t really a pose for me. And I’m ok with letting the desire to pull off crow pose go.

PS For a more in-depth and scholarly explanation of Abyhāsa and Vairāgya, check out this YouTube clip. The first 2-3 minutes are quite informative, or if you want to deep dive a little further, watch the full 12 minutes.

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