Abhyasa and Vairagya: Finding Balance Between Effort and Letting Go
As we begin a new year (Happy 2018!) it can be a great time to examine some of the ways in which we conduct our lives. My fiancé and I took a long road trip from Vermont to California this winter break (check out the photo of me above in beautiful Great Basin National Park and below near Lake Tahoe), which afforded me a lot of time to think! The yogic concepts of abhyasa and vairagya were on my mind as I mulled over the past year and prepared to welcome 2018. I realized that these two contradictory yet complementary ideas translate extremely well to singing. Let me explain.
First, a little background: the concepts of abhyasa and vairagya are outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a text on yoga theory and practice from around 400 CE by Patanjali, a yoga scholar. The Yoga Sutras are required reading for anyone interested in yoga philosophy and I encourage you to check them out! We spent a good deal of time in my Yoga Teacher Training examining the ideas in this text and I find many of the concepts to be thought-provoking.
In the first few sutras Patanjali explains that the goal of yoga is to calm and quiet the chatter of the mind. What a wonderful goal, right? To achieve this rather difficult goal, he outlines the important opposing principles of Abhyasa, translated as effort or practice, and vairagya, translated as non-attachment or letting go. In other words, practice leads you in the right direction toward the goal of calming the mind, while detachment from the outcome of your practice allows you to continue along the journey without getting sidetracked by the pains and pleasures that are sure to come up along the way.
Additionally, Patanjali gives us three directions to apply to abhyasa (practice):
One must practice for a long time
One must practice without interruption
One must practice enthusiastically and with devotion
This sounds a lot like rules for practicing singing (or any other skill-based activity in life)! Building great vocal technique requires practicing for a long time, without interruption, and with enthusiasm. We cannot expect to achieve our vocal goals overnight. Further, we cannot expect to achieve them unless we are devoted to their achievement.
Let’s unpack these ideas further and see how we can apply them to singing. Abhyasa is cultivating the willpower and persistent effort to choose actions, words, and thoughts that lead us towards our goal, while vairagya is learning to identify and let go of the fears, aversions, and attachments that cloud our perception of who we are. The key to success is balancing these two ideas: practice and non-attachment. As you well know, practicing is just as important in singing as it is in yoga. Practicing helps us develop our muscle memory and vocal technique, learn music, and hone essential performance skills. However, once our vocal technique is solid, our music learned, and our performance polished there comes a time when we have to let it all go, embrace the moment, and perform! This is an example of the balance between abhyasa and vairagya. The practice and effort that we put into our preparation allows us to let go and be in the moment of performance by not overthinking or becoming attached to the outcome. Overthinking during the moment of performance can have a multitude of negative effects, most of all missing out on being present for the moment you have worked so hard for!
We can also apply abhyasa and vairagya to singing in a slightly different way. Once we have the practice portion of these ideas down, focusing on non-attachment becomes very important if we are to develop resilience. Vairagya means facing adversities and success alike and not becoming attached to them by identifying ourselves with them. In other words, not defining ourselves and our worth by our failures or successes. You are not your failures. You are also not your successes. You are YOU (see my post on being your kind, honest, awesome self); infinite, eternal, unique. Recognize the feelings and experiences you have and then let them go and move on. Doing so will allow you to put your best foot forward day after day in your practice because you won’t be bogged down by the negative emotions brought on by past disappointments or distracted by feelings of superiority produced from the recognition of successes.
When we commit to our practice (yoga, singing, basket weaving, etc.) without any attachment to an expected outcome we are able to accept the results of our actions without emotional upheaval. Sounds pretty great, right? Of course this is all easier said than done but that is the whole point-for practice to be effective we need detachment, for detachment to develop, we need practice! It is a never-ending cycle.
The principles of abhyasa and vairagya can help us keep a level head in a world that is often overwhelming, difficult, and distracting. The balance of effort and non-attachment allow us to tap into our inner truth, helping us see our personal path more clearly.
Wishing you a beautiful 2018, full of practice, non-attachment, and adventure.