Kama (desire) is a natural expression of being human and an essential ingredient for starting a yoga practice. Kama motivates us to get on our yoga mats and to do the work to advance in our practice. But our desires also create disharmony in the mind, which in turn produces unnecessary psychological suffering. To reduce (and eventually eliminate) kama, the ancient yogis created the practice of vairagya (detachment). While often associated with cave-dwelling renunciates, this conscious removal of emotional and mental reactions is beneficial and important for all levels of yogis to practice.
Vairagya is essential for cultivating equanimity, progressing in meditation, mastering the mind and moving forward along the path of yoga. The practice of vairagya takes enormous patience, inner strength and effort–so be prepared for this skill to develop slowly and gradually. Fortunately for us, vairagya has four stages that allow us to practice at the level best suited to our abilities, skills or goals.
In yatamana (endeavoring), the first stage of vairagya, we see how unnecessary suffering is created by the quality and content of our thoughts, and we learn how to let go or transform these harmful thoughts. Negative thinking and critical self-talk are common sources of mental suffering. These thoughts can easily be transformed through practicing acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, kindness and friendliness. Another common cause of suffering is having our thoughts stuck in a repetitive pattern due to an emotional trigger or event. Repetitive yoga practices, like mantra meditation, pranayama and sun salutations, can be the best remedy for getting your mind out of a rut.
In vyatireka (separation) we understand that our likes and dislikes are the root cause of unhealthy mental patterns and thoughts. The goal of this stage is to move towards a state of mental and emotional neutrality. Start practicing vyatireka by discerning between what thoughts and feelings are helpful or unhelpful, true or untrue. Then cultivate the awareness of how you are habitually attracted or repulsed by external objects (people, food, smells, etc.) and how the labels you attach to these objects (good, bad, pleasant, unpleasant) determines how you react to them. Lastly work on moving past deciding if something is good or bad, and see if you can simply be present with the sensations and energy that are conveying the information of the outside world to you.
Ekendriya (one organ of sense) is when the indriyas, the ten senses, are under the complete control of manas (the mental function aspect of the mind). This third stage of vairagya is significantly more challenging than the two previous stages and will require much more discipline and practice to achieve. Pratyahara, withdrawing our attention from our sense organs like a turtle pulling its limbs into its shell, is the primary technique to achieve this level of vairagya. Start by minimizing external distractions in your environment, and practice keeping your focus and attention inward. When you notice any thoughts or strong stimulations from your sense organs, take a few deep breaths and consciously bring your focus back into the core of your being.
In vasikara (subjection) the ten senses and the mind are restrained and the attachments of the mind are under complete control. This requires a deep awareness of how the mind becomes attracted to the process of attachment. In this last stage of vairagya the mind will no longer be attracted or repulsed by thoughts and mental images. You feel no attraction to the senses or objects, and you perceive both the sweet and bitter fruits of life as exactly the same. To attain this level of mental mastery a deep meditation practice and a strong yoga practice will be necessary.
Essentially vairagya is a deeper and more subtle practice of “not giving a damn.” One does not need to become a vairagya master to reap the benefits of this practice and experience an improvement in their mental well-being and overall happiness. Every time you loosen or break apart the chains of attraction and repulsion, you create more freedom, less suffering, and you move one step closer towards enlightenment.