The Yoga Sutras: Climbing the Ladder Of Involution

Published on February 26, 2014

Making major changes in your life can sometimes feel like waging an inner battle, especially when trying to transform unhelpful but powerful habits. It’s a human condition that Patanjali addressed 2,000 years ago in Yoga Sutras 1.15 and 1.16, when he outlined how to disentangle from desire or cravings.

In his commentary on these two sutras, B. K. S. Iyengar calls this internal shift “involution” and compares it to climbing a ladder, a task Patanjali gave tools for in Sutra 1.12—abhaysa and vairagya. Dedicated practice (abhyasa) is the energy or spark we need to climb the ladder. Non-attachment (vairagya) lets us pull the ladder up behind us—in other words, no backtracking.

Sutra 1.15, according to Iyengar’s translation: “Renunciation is the practice of detachment from desires.” This sounds simple enough, but vairagya— renunciation or dispassion or letting go—isn’t an on/off sort of ability, like flipping a switch. Disentangling from unhelpful cravings—longings that limit or control us—is a lengthy process, leading eventually to freedom. This is what Sutra 1.16 describes: “The ultimate renunciation is when one transcends the qualities of nature and perceives the soul.”

In the first stages of vairagya, the object of desire still carries a charge. Let’s say that I’ve resolved to end my addiction to sugar. But when I walk past a bakery and see a chocolate cupcake, even though I resist stopping, the craving is still strong—my mind imagines the cupcake’s aroma or flavor or texture, and my salivary glands automatically respond. Over time, my responses to seeing a cupcake will diminish. This is abhyasa: Through the practice or effort of not acting on that craving, it will lose its power. Someday, I might see a cupcake and have no reaction at all—that is vairagya.

Growth toward freedom is sometimes so gradual that we don’t always grasp the layers of change involved, but making a self-assessment is a valuable form of svadhyaya. Perhaps on an intellectual level, I know how addictive and unhealthful sugar is. Later, I may register how terrible I feel when I give in to my cupcake craving. Eventually, I may understand—aha!—that my craving was really a desire for comfort. Finally, I may sever the leash between my senses and the sense object.

In the Bhagavad Gita, these same principles are given dramatic form. When Arjuna (who represents all aspiring yogis) hesitates on the battlefield (which represents life), he seeks counsel from his chariot driver (Krishna, who represents Higher Self)—just as we might seek wisdom through prayer or meditation or reflection. Krishna describes to Arjuna the qualities of a yogi or self-realized person: “The man who physically fasts from sense objects find that the sense objects fall away for a little while, leaving behind only the longing for them. But he who beholds the Supreme is freed even from longings” (BG 2.59).

Through continued practice, the yogi reaches paravairagya, the highest state of freedom from longings, when even the gunas (the three basic qualities of nature) are transcended. This supreme non-attachment might seem beyond the reach of everyday yogis, so why should we even attempt to climb the ladder of involution? We embark on this journey because all too often our desires control us, leading to discontent, confusion, greed, even anger. And though we may never pull up the ladder entirely, yoga is an inward evolution that gives us greater moments of freedom, longer experiences of inner peace. The journey is the reward.

How has yoga helped you untangle negative patterns?

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Kathleen Bryant Avatar
About the author
A former teacher and forever student, Kathleen Bryant swapped her running shoes for a yoga blanket in 1992, when she joined her first Hatha Yoga class in the back room of a local crystal shop. After earning a 500-hour teaching certificate from the International Yoga College, she taught anatomy, asana, and other subjects at 7 Centers School of Yoga Arts in Sedona, AZ. Kathleen is especially interested in the therapeutic aspects of yoga and continues to learn from Rama Jyoti Vernon, an amazing yogini who inspires her students to integrate yoga philosophy and mythology with contemporary life. An award-winning author, she has also published a children’s story, a cookbook, and books that focus on Southwest culture, travel, and natural history.
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