Yoga philosophy states that much of our suffering and sadness is created by our attachment to material things, the people around us, and even our internal thoughts and feelings. We suffer when the things we are attached to invariably change or leave us. The stronger and more intense our attachments are, the greater the pain and suffering we experience. If we can soften, dissipate, or remove our attachments, we can free ourselves from much of our suffering and discontent. The practice of detachment in yoga is called vairagya. We can incorporate detachment in our asana practice, as well as when we are off our yoga mats and out in the world.
Kama (desire) is a natural expression of being human and an essential ingredient for starting a yoga practice. Kama motivates us to get on our yoga mats and to do the work to advance in our practice. But our desires also create disharmony in the mind, which in turn, produces unnecessary psychological suffering. To reduce (and eventually eliminate) kama, the ancient yogis created the practice of vairagya.
What is Vairagya?
Vairagya is a Sanskrit word that translates as “detachment” or “dispassion.” In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (1:15), the essence of vairagya is described as: “Dispassion is the conscious mastery of the control of desire for objects seen, perceived or heard.” True vairagya means detachment or letting go of everything that belongs to the materialistic world, including attachment to material things, emotions, thoughts, ideas, beliefs, etc. Essentially, vairagya is a deeper, conscious and more subtle practice of “not giving a damn.”
While often associated with cave-dwelling renunciates, this conscious removal of emotional and mental reactions is beneficial and important for all levels of yogis to practice. Detachment from desire clears out clutter from our consciousness and thus allows us to experience greater levels of peace and tranquility.
The Four Stages of Vairagya
Vairagya is essential for cultivating equanimity, progressing in meditation, mastering the mind, and moving forward along the path of yoga. The practice of vairagya takes enormous patience, inner strength and effort–so be prepared for this skill to develop slowly and gradually. Fortunately for us, vairagya has four stages that allow us to practice at the level best suited to our abilities, skills or goals.
In yatamana (endeavoring), the first stage of vairagya, we see how unnecessary suffering is created by the quality and content of our thoughts, and we learn how to let go or transform these harmful thoughts. Negative thinking and critical self-talk are common sources of mental suffering. These thoughts can easily be transformed through practicing acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, kindness and friendliness. Another common cause of suffering is having our thoughts stuck in a repetitive pattern due to an emotional trigger or event. Repetitive yoga practices, like mantra meditation, pranayama and sun salutations, can be the best remedy for getting your mind out of a rut.
In vyatireka (separation) we understand that our likes and dislikes are the root cause of unhealthy mental patterns and thoughts. The goal of this stage is to move towards a state of mental and emotional neutrality. Start practicing vyatireka by discerning between what thoughts and feelings are helpful or unhelpful, true or untrue. Then cultivate the awareness of how you are habitually attracted or repulsed by external objects (people, food, smells, etc.) and how the labels you attach to these objects (good, bad, pleasant, unpleasant) determines how you react to them. Lastly, work on moving past deciding if something is good or bad, and see if you can simply be present with the sensations and energy that are conveying the information of the outside world to you.
Ekendriya (one organ of sense) is when the indriyas, the ten senses, are under the complete control of manas (the mental function aspect of the mind). This third stage of vairagya is significantly more challenging than the two previous stages and will require much more discipline and practice to achieve. Pratyahara, withdrawing our attention from our sense organs like a turtle pulling its limbs into its shell, is the primary technique to achieve this level of vairagya. Start by minimizing external distractions in your environment, and practice keeping your focus and attention inward. When you notice any thoughts or strong stimulations from your sense organs, take a few deep breaths and consciously bring your focus back to the core of your being.
In vasikara (subjection) the ten senses and the mind are restrained and the attachments of the mind are under complete control. This requires a deep awareness of how the mind becomes attracted to the process of attachment. In this last stage of vairagya, the mind will no longer be attracted or repulsed by thoughts and mental images. You feel no attraction to the senses or objects, and you perceive both the sweet and bitter fruits of life as exactly the same. To attain this level of mental mastery, a deep meditation practice and a strong yoga practice will be necessary.