And I don’t mean that standing poses are more accessible than seated ones. I mean that applying effort—even strenuous effort undertaken consistently over a long period of time—is less challenging than accepting the results of our efforts, whatever those may be.
The Yoga Sutras address these two concepts: abhyasa or effortful practice and vairagya or nonattachment. Abhyasa is something you can actively do. If ustrasana, camel pose, is challenging, for example, you can hit the mat daily (that is, consistently) for as long as it takes with earnest exertion until your efforts yield improvement. Many of us are pretty good at putting in this type of assiduous work. Vairagya demands a different, quieter type of sustained perseverance. As you monitor your progress (or seeming lack thereof) in camel pose, you’ll have to repeatedly admonish yourself to detach from the end result and to accept—to really, truly embrace—the present expression of the pose. The contentment that arises from nonattachment is far more elusive than your heels.
In the pursuit of an objective, both practice and nonattachment are requisite. In his commentary on the Yoga Sutras, B. K. S. Iyengar asserts the importance of both: “A bird cannot fly with one wing. It needs two wings to fly. To reach the highest spiritual goal, the two wings of yoga, abhyasa and vairagya are essential.” That practice entails work seems self-evident. Mr. Iyengar reminds us that adopting an attitude of nonattachment—simply sitting with things as they are—is equally vital.
The Sacred Way at the Ming Tombs outside Beijing is a splendidly serene, tree-lined stroll. On either side of the pathway animal statues are arranged Noah’s ark style—two by two. And, notably, every featured animal has a standing representation and a seated one. Statues exemplify the characteristics usually associated with abhyasa: consistent perseverance assumed indefinitely. But doesn’t the seated camel exhibit those traits just as much as the standing one? Sitting down isn’t passive; letting go—repose—requires sustained diligence. And that endeavor can be even more effortful than the more obvious work of standing erect.
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