Retreats and reflecting on practice and non-attachment


Going on a retreat can help you contemplate stuff and reflect on things, partly because you have physically retreated from your usual schedule, activities, connections (if you turn devices off!), and other distractions for the mind.

Room with yoga mats
(C) Alyson Tyler

A yoga retreat can also introduce us to new things to practise*, we may have the opportunity to practise some familiar things in a more detailed way, and we may also be inspired to start a new practice. We may also use the time and space to reflect more generally life. All of these applied when I attended a yoga retreat with Andrea Kwiatkowski at West Lexham, Norfolk. Andrea also based the retreat around two themes, one of which was practice and non-attachment.

We looked at one of Patajali’s yoga sutras (1:12): abhyasa vairagyabhyam tat nirodhah’. This is generally translated as: ‘Identification with the fluctuations of the mind is stopped by practice and non-attachment’ or ‘The thought patterns are mastered/regulated/quieted through practice and non-attachment’.

The key words here are practice (abhyasa) and non-attachment (vairagya), and they lead to the inevitable conundrum: how can we practise with non-attachment? In order to motivate ourselves to practise something, we probably need a goal, a reason, or motivating force e.g. to be calmer, to be able to balance on our heads, to be fitter. And, inevitably, that leads to being attached to a goal and having a desire for a specific thing or outcome. Yet this very desire creates the ‘fluctuations of the mind’ that we are seeking to reduce through the pratice of yoga.

(C) Alyson Tyler

The trick, and this is why yoga is a life time practice, is to practise yoga but to not identify with, or get caught up in, the desire part. If you cannot do a headstand, for example, you don’t let that define you, you try to not let it lead to negative thoughts about yourself or your abilities. You don’t let it affect your overall self. It’s not that you’re not interseted in being able to do a headstand, or sit in lotus, or whatever; rather, you have a neutral view of what occurs, during each yoga session when you practise it, whatever difficulties or emotions it throws up.

The difficulty is that it is human nature to feel critical about yourself if you ‘fail’ in something, and also to enjoy (and maybe get addicted to) the ‘high’ of achieving something that is challenging for you. It’s human nature to feel despondent or to give up if something is too hard; and without some element of desire, it can be difficult to motivate yourself to do something: why push your body hard if you’re not meant to be that fussed about getting a fit body, or being able to do a handstand? Finding a balance between desire/interest to practise, and non-attachment to the results of the practice is the complicated path to aim for.
Exterior of yoga barn
(C) Alyson Tyler

The sutras following the one quoted above expand on the concepts of practice and non-attachment: as well as meaning practice, abhyasa means choosing the wiser of alternative actions, applying the effort, and making decisions on the basis of what will bring greater tranquility or peace of mind. Vairagya also relates to letting go – the ending of cravings rather than their supression.

According to sutra 1:14, our yoga practice should be done for a long time, without a break, and with sincere devotion, then it will become firmly rooted, stable and a solid foundation. That is why a yoga retreat can be so beneficial: it helps you to re-focus, reflect and review where you are, what you’re doing, and where you’re going. In a non-attachment manner of course!

 * A note on spelling: Practice with a ‘c’ near the end refers to the ‘noun’ or ‘thing’, it is a practice, like a book; practise with the ‘s’ is the verb, to do something. Copare: “I practise every day. I have a varied practice.” (Any you spot wrong let me know!)

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