Several years ago, I was just getting back into the groove of a regular yoga practice when I dropped into a class taught by PYR ambassador Sue Agee, who was seated at the front of the room with a whiteboard and some dry-erase markers. I imagine that anyone reading this who has practiced with Sue is nodding along already. That whiteboard is a sign that some wisdom is about to get dropped.
Even if you’ve never cracked open The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, you’ve probably heard a teacher offer some variation on the idea presented in sutra 1.2 that yoga is the calming (or the stilling, cessation, restraint) of the fluctuations (or modifications, changes, etc) of the mind. And if you’ve ever emerged from savasana with a blissfully quiet brain, you know it to be true. But how does it work?
Sutra 1.12 holds the answer, and it was the focus of Sue’s lesson that day. These mental modifications are restrained by practice (abhyasa) and non-attachment (vairagya.) Abhyasa–practice–is frequently translated as “steadiness of effort.” Easy enough to understand, right? But non-attachment? That one’s trickier. Sue broke it down like this:
Abhyasa: Never give up.
Vairagya: Always let go.
Never give up. Always let go.
To do yoga is to do both of these at once, all the time. Never give up; always let go.
I left class that day and wrote this mantra in my journal. It got me through a difficult year, and I return to it often in challenging times. During these last six months (six! months!), as the covid pandemic has changed all of our lives in countless ways, the simplicity and flexibility of this definition of yoga have changed my practice both on and off the mat.
Never give up. Roll out my mat whether I feel like it or not. Show up–for work, for personal commitments, for my partner, for the dog who needs to be walked even though it’s August in Virginia. Answer the phone for a conversation I don’t feel like having. Open the zoom link. Put on the mask. Wash my hands, wash my hands, wash my hands.
Always let go. Roll out my mat in the middle of the living room because it’s the only spot with enough space, even though my partner is on a conference call in the next room and the TV is on and the dog is smooshing a drooly toy against my leg. Let go of the notion that I need solitude and silence to be able to practice at home. Let go of routines. Let go of momentum. Let go of plans. Let go of the definition of ‘normal.’ Let go. Let go. Let go.
These last six months have shown me so many things I didn’t realize I was attached to. So many stories and expectations and habits that were familiar and comfortable. I didn’t want it to be true that I needed to let go of them, and so many of the changes (so! many! changes!) have been hard. There are days I have to let go of the same thing a dozen times before noon: the longing to wake up feeling totally refreshed, the thought that maybe I’ll just grab lunch out with a friend, the desire to plan a spontaneous trip. 2020 is so not what I signed up for! Constantly finding new things to let go of is annoying, and it’s challenging, and I am often pretty mad at it if I’m being honest. It’s hard.
It’s hard, and it’s worth it. Because the thing about letting go is that it too is a practice that requires steadiness of effort, and it does indeed result in calming. I won’t pretend that this pandemic has brought new excitement or fun to my life or that I feel particularly awesome on any given day. But I feel better now than I did when I was trying to shoehorn this reality into old framework. I feel better in the moment after each letting-go than I did the moment before it. I feel better letting my dog be my bolster than trying to convince him to stay off my mat.
Every letting-go is an exhale that opens up space for something new to arrive.
Never give up.
Rebecca Schinsky is the PYR Board President, a yoga teacher and the Executive Director of Business Development at Book Riot.