Many folks think of yoga as a physical exercise or a way to move consciously to help de-stress (see “When I say yoga I mean…“). These are parts of yoga, but the foundation of yoga practice is to clear dysfunctional habit patterns (samskara). These habits of thinking, feeling, and reacting affect our capacity for joy. The unconscious habit patterns create filters over the reality of the present moment, with the potential of creating distress or suffering. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the methods of yoga are described as a pathway to reduce the internal machinations that provoke suffering.
Sutra 1.12 suggests that our unconscious thought patterns (vrittis) are mastered, regulated, or quieted (nirodhah) through practice (abhyasa) and non-attachment (vairagya). The process of persistent, systematic exploration of thought patterns, fears, and false identifications allows for detachment from the filters that enable suffering.
Abhyasa describes the continuous practice necessary to clear the mind. It cannot be accomplished in one sitting. Clearing the mind requires discipline of consistent attention and time to develop the cumulative power of yoga. It is also true that old habits die hard. The unconscious thought patterns continue to arise. Through continued intentional awareness we can begin to observe these patterns and reduce their impact, even change the structure of your brain.
Vairagya refers to the process of letting go of the many attachments our minds accumulate. Panatjali describes these attachments further in Sutra 2.5, saying attachments are the thoughts that follow identification with pleasurable experiences. There is no moral judgement about this attachment, rather it is how our minds differentiate between “I” and “other.” Attachment is a natural habit of the mind. The yoga practice is to become aware and witness these natural attachments as thought patterns rather than reality. To observe, without judgement and letting go of the need to “fix” or change them during practice.
There is a large body of research showing the brain benefits of practicing yoga as well as positive emotional effects. These outcomes may motivate you to start, but keep in mind the concept of vairagya – non attachment to outcome. The focus is to be present with your body, breath, and thoughts – to practice. Everyone’s yoga practice can include a variety of techniques with the basic intention is to create awareness of our habits. The changes come from continued effort over time (abhyasa).