Let me tell you a secret to a great hill climb: vairagya.
“Excuse me,” you say. “Did you just say V-i-a-g-r-a? You take one of those pills to ‘get up’ the hill? Who knew?”
No, not V-i-a-g-r-a, but vairagya. Yeah, one of those fancy Sanskrit words again.
This fancy Sanskrit word can be loosely translated as non-attachment. In the example of climbing a hill on your bike, we’re talking about being “non-attached to the outcome” — the outcome meaning how fast we make the climb, or how much we suffer, or even if we make it to the summit at all.
Vairagya is one half of a recommended pair of techniques that’s at the heart of yoga. The other technique is abhyasa, which loosely translates as consistent practice, discipline, perseverance — a steady, continuous effort.
It’s easy to see where abhyasa might help in climbing a hill: Gosh, if you don’t make the effort and pedal, like, the whole way, you’re never going to make it.
But where does vairagya — non-attachment — fit in? Does it mean we’re supposed to put out all this effort, and then not care about the result? What’s the sense in that?
Well … we’re not going to tell you!
We’ll start to answer the question by using a hill climbing scenario: You are on a group ride, climbing the highest mountain of the area. Everybody is sweating and panting and putting out big effort. You struggle, dangling off the back.
What do you think about? That you’re too slow? That it’s too hard and you don’t want to do it anymore? That the summit appears miles away, and you feel like you’ve been pedaling for hours? Are you questioning why you are last once again, way off the back of the pack? Wondering why your riding partner that you used to beat all the time is now several switchbacks in front of you, powering up the climb like a mountain goat?
These are some of the thoughts I have when out on my weekly training rides. Yep, it’s those swirling chitta vrittris. I sometimes think that the real training I get out on these rides is the training of my mind — how I mentally handle the situation — more so than the physical training of my legs and heart and lungs. And by often being at the back of the pack, I get in lots of mental training. Ha!
So what to do? How does a person tame such thoughts and emotions?
It’s vairagya to the rescue!
Well, that and abhyasa. Don’t forget about that little guy. In fact, vairagya and abhyasa are “riding buddies” – meant to be employed as a team – and their purpose is to “ride herd” and tame those chitta vrittris.
With vairagya, it’s not that you don’t care about the results, but that you don’t invest too much emotional and psychological energy in them. That doesn’t mean you suppress your emotions, or turn them off completely like a robot, or that you act nonchalantly about your efforts, but rather that you become self-aware, observing your thoughts and emotions as if at a distance, and realizing that at the end of the day, they are not you, the real you. So don’t get tangled up in their web.
If you succeed up the hill beyond your wildest expectations, winning that race or climbing faster than you ever have, you can celebrate and party till the cows come home, knowing all the while that the cows do come home, and your victory is only temporary. Likewise, if you get dropped like a rock and come in dead last, you may be disappointed, but there’s no point in plunging into a deep depression for all eternity. It’s just a hill after all. You are still you afterwards. You are still alive. And there’s always “next time.” In fact, you might spend your energy more productively in analyzing what you can do differently ”next time.”
On the surface, there is a seeming paradox between the interplay of abhyasa and vairagya. How can you do your best and at the same time, not let the results affect you? Why put out all that effort if you are not supposed to worry about the outcome?
For a long time I’ve struggled with this paradox. Deep down, I know it isn’t a paradox at all, but I’ve been at a loss to explain why not. Thanks to an article I read recently in Pez Cycling News, I think I’ve figured it out.
“What?” you ask. “You figured out a yoga concept from a cycling website?”
Hey, whatever it takes, man.
In the article on Managing Your Will to Succeed, sports psychologist Marvin Zauderer differentiates between the will to succeed and the need to succeed. This, for me, was the key that unlocked my understanding.
(By the way, Pez Cycling News has a whole series of articles, in their “ToolBox” section, which among other things, is chock full of useful sports psychology advice. There are many interesting parallels between this advice and the practice of yoga.)
Let’s switch to yoga for a second to explore the difference between will and need. We’ll pretend we’re at a typical yoga class, taught by a reknowned yoga instructor we’ll call “Guru Deb.”
After the opening meditation and obligatory chanting of Om, Guru Deb guides us through a series of poses: Table top position. Cat-cow movements. The ubiquitous downward facing dog. Runner’s lunge. Mountain pose, crescent pose, forward fold, warrior pose, triangle pose, you name it. All the while, our teach guides and encourages us with cheerful and enthusiastic commentary, saying things like: “Reach-reach-reach for the front of the room! Keep those hips aligned! Don’t let that front knee sway out! Tuck in that tummy! Rotate your pelvis, keep your back straight, your heart lifted! Keep that back leg strong!”
And then the mind games begin. Interspersed amongst these tips for achieving correct posture, we are told not to worry about it: “However far you are in the pose, it’s fine!” And if we’re trying to balance in tree pose, Guru Deb says, “Don’t worry about falling. It’s not a competition!” And after showing us the full extent of, say, upward facing bow, she might say, “Probably no one in this room will get anywhere near the end-shape of this pose.” (That’s for sure. I can barely even start it.) “But that’s not important,” she adds.
Seemingly contradictory remarks like these have had me puzzled for a long time. If it doesn’t matter what our pose looks like, then why is our teacher gently correcting our feet alignment, or rotating our hips, or encouraging us to stretch further? Why is she showing us the full extension of a pose we’re likely to never achieve?
And come to think of it, why are we doing these poses at all? Why am I in this class? Why not sit in the corner of my room at home and stare at the wall? Why? Why? Why?
Well, I’m not going to answer that ultimate question “Why?”
Oh brother …
Let’s go back to the remark, “It’s not a competition.”
How well do you take such advice to heart? We’ve all heard the advice, and probably all of us have ignored it at one time or another. Like it or not, it’s part of our nature to be competitive – to consciously or sub-consciously try to stretch further and stay balanced longer than our peers; to impress that attractive student next-mat on how far forward our hands can go in posterior stretch, or to hope that he/she doesn’t notice how pitifully short our hands are from reaching our toes, saying to ourselves, Oh yoga master in the sky, could you please give me the ability to move my hands at least past my knees? That would be great!
Why do we worry so? It’s just a pose!
I’m no expert at this stuff, but I bet I know the answer. I bet all of us do, if we’re being honest with ourselves. It’s because of our ego, sometimes called the false self, or lower self. Our ego wants us to succeed — or more accurately put, it needs us to succeed. It likes to impress. It doesn’t like being embarrassed. Your ego thinks it’s the most important thing in the world. And if you are trying to balance in tree pose, for instance, what’s more important to your ego than not falling over?
The ego is a crafty little devil. It notices that you are striving towards some goal, and thinks, rather presumptively, that this must mean you need to reach that goal. Not because this is necessarily in your best interest, but because that’s what it wants. It wants to win, baby!
But then why are we setting goals and striving to achieve them? If it’s not supposed to be the ego driving us, then what is?
Always more questions … Ha!
The real source of our ambition is our true Self, our higher Self, our divine spirit, God, whatever you want to call it. Our higher Self has plans we are rarely privy to in our normal awareness. It’s on some kind of mission, and it’s the true source of our drive.
I spend a large part of my “hobby time” putting in lots of miles on my bike. For sure, I get lots of enjoyment out of it. But that doesn’t explain why I feel compelled to seek out and destroy all the hills in the area, or to spend long gruelling days in the saddle. These endeavors certainly aren’t solving world peace, or fattening my pitiful bank account, or accomplishing any other lofty goal, as far as I can figure out. Yet, there must be some reason my higher Self wants to do to this. (Just so you know, I suspect it’s trying to learn some kind of lesson. What’s the lesson? I wish I knew!)
And what is this thing called drive?
Perhaps just another name for will.
In the case of climbing a hill, I must have the will to climb said hill, otherwise I wouldn’t – indeed, couldn’t – be doing it. (See this post for a clear and immediate example.) And I hope it’s not just pure ego – my lower self — running the show, trying to impress the biker chicks out there. Ha! (Note to wife: It’s not that! I swear!)
So, my higher Self is willing me to succeed. It makes me try my best, employing abhyasa – perseverance, focus, discipline, steady continuous effort. That sort of thing.
But that crafty ego-monster-trickster confuses that and turns it into the need to succeed.
Wait a minute. Why is succeeding so bad?
Who said it was? It’s not bad. But neither is failure.
More “Why?” questions I see. Ha ha!
It’s because the most important thing about any endeavor is the doing of it. That’s what it’s all about — just doing, just being.
And there’s another, more practical reason: Ultimately, we don’t have total control of the outcome anyway!
No matter how much training I put in, how many hills I climb, or how many sprints I suffer through, there’s no guarantee I’ll succeed in the “event” I’m training for, be it the Tour de Tucson, a double century, or completing a dream ride in the Rockies, without tears. There are so many factors that are not in my control. Things like the weather, (can’t climb that hill in a snowstorm, or at least I don’t want to), or cracks in the road that cause spokes to break, or flat tires, or javelinas standing in the roadway as I zoom down the hill. (That’s been known to happen to unlucky riders here in Phoenix, with sometimes catastrophic consequences.)
The only thing you can control is doing your best — your will to succeed.
One of the yoga instructors at the studio where I practice gave us the following analogy that describes this perfectly, at least I think so:
Think about playing a game of pool. It’s your turn. You scan the balls on the table, visualizing angles in your head, plotting strategies about which balls are going to hit which other balls, which pockets they are going to drop into, and you try to calculate, if implicitly, how much velocity and spin to impart on the cue ball. You carefully line up the cue stick, and draw back the stick, and then hit the ball with what you hope is the right calibrated force. At this point, you’ve done your part. Once the ball leaves the stick, the result is out of your hands — literally. Many factors can affect what happens next, which you have no say in. Things like whether the table is perfectly level, or whether the felt surface is perfectly smooth, or how round the balls are, or how balanced the balls are, or how straight the sides of the table are as the balls bank from one to the other, or whether some dude who has had a “few too many” stumbles by and falls onto the pool table just as your winning eight-ball is about to drop, and so on and so forth, etcetera, etc.
Since you don’t have total control on the outcome, then if you want to spare yourself of a lot of grief, it’s much better to simply let go of any expectation of how things are going to play out. Whatever the outcome, you calmly accept it. If it means you’ve succeeded, great! If it means you didn’t, then you can go back and analyze what you might have done differently to nudge things the way you wanted. That’s great too.
What you don’t want to do is beat yourself up over something that, in the final analysis, you didn’t have total control over anyway. That’s just crazy.
By the way, sometimes vairagya is described as “detachment”, or ”letting go”, as in “letting go of your expectations of the outcome.” But it’s more than that. Not that there’s anything wrong with letting go. But it’s even better to not have grabbed a hold in the first place. That’s true “non-attachment” — to not have been attached in the first place.
So when you set out to perform some task, don’t invest too heavily in any expectations of how it will turn out, not even at the start. Simply vow to do your best and plow ahead. Whatever will be, will be. (Drats! I hear Doris Day in my head now.)
It’s a hard thing to have, this vairagya mindset, as our egos get in the way constantly. I’m not very good at it, although I am getting better, especially when it comes to bike riding endeavors. Those weekly rides at the back of the pack give me lots of opportunities for practice. As for the other, more important things in life, it’s often a real struggle.
But you know what, I just try my best, and try not to worry about whether I’m going to succeed at … er … employing vairagya. Ha!