Abhyasa, Vairagya My Ass

By Susan Orem, February, 2020

That was just to get your attention. And it was indeed my intention to write a funny/snarky essay about not being rewarded for my good deeds.

Which I still may do.

I started practicing in 1990 at Crunch (it was a gym) when my knees couldn’t take bench aerobics anymore. The yoga teachers were Sharon Gannon, Cyndi Lee, and a few years later, Dana Flynn. Nobody mentioned abhyasa or vairagya. There was little mention of philosophy. It was a GYM. I went every other day. Then I started going twice a day every other day. But Sharon Gannon passed out a free class card for her studio on 2nd Avenue so I also went to Jivamukti. It was a REAL yoga studio and I was a little intimidated. (I went to kirtan not knowing what it was. It was the first time both my legs fell asleep at the same time.)

It took two years of hopping at the wall to do a handstand. I tell my students who are struggling that eventually boredom will overcome fear. That’s how it was for me. After about three years, I did my first crow pose in Sharon’s class. I actually shouted, “I DID IT!”  Her response? “Well, it’s about time.”  Bummer. So I figured I wasn’t working HARD enough, OFTEN enough, blah blah blah. That may have been true but somebody should have mentioned that vairagya part.

Descartes once said: “Happiness does not consist in acquiring the things we think will make us happy, but in learning to like doing the things we have to do anyway.”

There are many interpretations or translations of Patanjali’s Sutra 1.12-14:

From Barbara Stoller Miller: 1.12- “Cessation of the turnings of thought comes through practice and dispassion.”  1.13- “Practice is the effort to maintain the cessation of thought.”  1.14- “This practice is firmly grounded when it is performed for a long time without interruption and with zeal.”

OK. Thirty years later I have never maintained the cessation of thought. While I am spreading my breath through my spine to the soles of my feet, there is a WHOLE LOT of thinking going on. Sigh.

From Satchidinanda: “Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended for a long time, without break, and in all earnestness.”

Oh, I am earnest. BUT I HAVE A LIFE! What is “well attended”? What is “without break”? What about my wonderful students who can only come to class once a week? They are earnest. They are thoughtful. They show up regularly.

Doesn’t that count? I sure as hell think it does.

From Vimala Thakar: “If you persevere, if you persist, then even when you are working throughout the day the mind will remain steady, because it has learned steadiness.”

I like that one. So maybe I should stop feeling like a fake because I don’t practice four hours a day every day. I am doing the best I can. On the mat. But what about OFF the mat?

I had the interior of the Plum House at Heathen Hill Retreat Center painted recently. I packed everything that could move. I boxed up the dishes and emptied the china hutch. I took down every picture and removed the nails. I took all the ceiling fixtures down. I removed every switch plate and outlet cover. The rugs were rolled up in the bathtubs. Anything I could carry went into the basement. The painters (Chad and Nate. and yes, they did look like they could moonlight at Chippendales) arrived and said NOT A WORD. No, “Hey! This is the best prep job we’ve ever seen. Thanks! We know it was a shit ton of work for you but you made our jobs SO much easier.”  Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Just a perfect smile and a quick twist of a muscled torso before getting to work. I WAS CRUSHED.

Vairagya. I did the work. I did a fine job. It should have been enough.

And yet…

No one needs to applaud my effort on the mat in any pose. I am OK with “retiring” some of the stuff I used to be able to do. Now if I could just take that equanimity off the mat. Apparently 30 years is only the beginning.


Have courage.

Susan Orem

Susan “Lip” Orem began practicing yoga when the thrill of bench aerobics was gone. She was first certified by Cyndi Lee and has been a student of Rodney Yee since 1996. Susan “Lip” is grateful everyday that she does what she loves. She teaches weekly classes at Yoga Shanti Tribeca.

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