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Commit to Abhyāsa & Vairāgyam

Updated: May 31, 2023

COMMIT is my 37th year's spirit-word: a touchstone through change and a guiding light toward my aspirations. In less than a month lived so far with this new word, it has come alive is some surprising ways. The friends who have heard about "commit" invariably ask, "Okay, what does that mean to you?" and at first I struggled to answer. Now - after a few days of solitude, a refreshing hike in the mountains, hours musing in a journal, and many cups of chai - I'm drawn back to Patañjali's Yoga Sūtra, heeding the call to write through its lens on the importance of commitment on the spiritual path. The wisdom of the Sūtra isn't just for Yoga or spiritual practitioners though; read on and consider how "commit" is part of any valuable endeavor.

journal and pen, oracle card, cup of tea


The opening sūtra-s present the end-goal of Yoga: a mind that can be directed with sustained attention (1.2), in order to clearly perceive reality as-it-is (1.3). (Are you already feeling deflated? How could we possibly even imagine being in such a state??) Despite what might appear to be an unattainable goal, the twelfth sūtra describes the first of many ways we can begin moving in that direction:

अभ्यासवैराग्याभ्यां तन्निरोधः abhyāsavairāgyābhyāṃ tannirodhaḥ

"The mind can reach the state of Yoga through practice and detachment."

(1.12, trans. TKV Desikachar, The Heart of Yoga)

Yes, it's that simple. Practice...and detachment. No, of course it's not easy!

Abhyāsa and vairāgyam are two sides of the same coin. On one side, abhyāsa (practice) is "the correct effort required to move toward, reach, and maintain the state of Yoga" (1.13). It is sustaining the habits that cultivate a quiet, steady mind. In 1.14, Patañjali continues - "It is only when the correct practice is followed for a long time, without interruptions and with a quality of positive attitude and eagerness, that it can succeed." Abhyāsa means doing your practices or making efforts consistently, potentially over months or years. This approach invites us to take the long view on our goals and aspirations, to love our dreams so much that we won't give up when we don't see immediate results.

On the other side of this coin, vairāgyam (detachment) is withdrawing from habits that create compulsive behaviors. It is letting go of the old patterns that keep us stuck, releasing the unhealthy relationships that hold us back, relinquishing the old habits that indulge rather than inspire. "As we develop our practice along the correct lines, we find that our ability to discipline ourselves and reject instrusive influences grows. Eventually we may reach a state of detachment when at the highest level there is an absence of any cravings" (1.15). Vairāgyam means there comes a point (rather, many points) along the way when we have to choose - stay the same, or change? Repeat what wasn't working before, or do the hard work of writing a new story?

You can see how abhyāsa and vairāgyam are a push and a pull that support one another: as we consistently move toward our goal, we more easily overcome the obstacles (and vice versa). This is definitely a process and a nonlinear journey. But can you think of a way you've experienced this push/pull in relation to your own goals?

I have a recent example: Last year I suffered some of the most debilitating menstrual cycles of my life. There was one day I could only lay on the floor and cry, lightheaded from the 10/10 cramps and nausea. When a doctor told me this was normal and mentioned the word "hysterectomy," I knew something needed to change. With the encouragement of beloved friends and the support of my dear life partner, I set out to learn more about my infradian rhythm (I didn't even know it had a name!). All sources pointed to the need for regular exercise - but I resisted for months until realizing...

I could continue choosing the pain,

...or I could do something different.

With my goal in mind, I finally bought a gym membership and started working out a few times each week. On days when I felt too tired, I told myself, "Steph, we gotta go. We are not willing to repeat that pain." Nearly six months into this new habit now, I continue to choose my goal, and as I do, my previously insurmountable resistance to exercise weakens a bit more. I am committed to a new routine that has dramatically improved my cycles. I am grateful for the lessons of abhyāsa and vairāgyam.

Okay, that's not me...yet... ;-)

Consider how abhyāsa (practice) and vairāgyam (detachment) support you in achieving your goals. Let's start big:

  1. What is your "why"? Or how would you describe in a word or phrase your life's purpose?

  2. What are the ways you want to live out your life's purpose? In other words, what are your aspirations or goals?

  3. By naming your aspirations, to what are you committing?

    1. What are you willing to do to live your dreams and fulfill your purpose?

    2. What are you willing to let go of in order to make that happen?

  4. What attitude(s) would you like to bring into the process?

  5. Practice and detachment happen over time. What if you don't see immediate results? Are your aspirations worth years of commitment? What will help you stay the course?

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