As interpreted by Ty Landrum
In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali names abhyasa (practice) and vairagya (dispassion) as the two essential elements of yoga. And in Sutra 1.15, he dives more specifically into what “dispassion” actually means. Dispassion, he says, is “conscious mastery of desire.”
In traditional yogic asceticism, “conscious mastery of desire” is the ability to withstand urges and impulses, no matter how strong they might be. For ascetics, the purpose of vairagya is to realize a kind of autonomy by severing all attachments to the body—not exactly a compelling goal for a modern yoga practitioner.
The Purpose of Vairagya (Dispassion)
When this sutra is viewed through the lens of later Tantric philosophy, “conscious mastery of desire” is no longer the ability to withstand desire, but instead to release the animating force of desire from its object so we can experience that force as pure creativity. In this view, the purpose of vairagya is not to separate ourselves from our bodies, but instead to cultivate a deeper intimacy with them by tapping into innate creative forces.
Asana practice is an excellent opportunity to practice this more-engaging, less-repressive Tantric form of vairagya. As we move and breathe through the postures, we arouse primitive impulses of all kinds. But if we remain focused on the steady flow of our breath, we can remain grounded in our bodies. Instead of allowing impulses to disturb us or distract us into fantasy, we can hold them in perspective and see them for what they are: ephemeral formations of prana, the underlying energetic force that sustains us.
When desires arise during our asana practice, we can opt to breathe into them and to watch in wonder as the solvent of the breath dissolves desires into the open space of consciousness. When desire dissolves, it releases its creative and motivating force, and we experience that release as a cathartic wave, usually accompanied by feelings of exultation. For the force behind our desires—the force that draws us toward particular objects and people and places—is love. And when love is released from desire, we experience it as something selfless and blissful. Revel in that experience and continuously cultivate it through the abhyasa (practice) of vairagya.
See also Balancing Effort and Surrender