The Yoga of renunciation (Sanyasa Yoga)


In a recent news item it was reported that the women’s basketball team players of University of Maryland had entirely given up their cell phones for a few days. The idea is that such total withdrawal from the cell phone is a symbolism of their ability to pay unbridled attention to the job on hand – practice and perform well in the ensuing basketball tournament, without any distractions. This news item set me thinking.  There is certainly a benefit to consciously and deliberately withdraw from anything that distracts you the most like the cell phone. The more conscious and deliberate the withdrawal, the more conspicuous it seems to be. But, what happens if the withdrawal is purposeful and it is a natural part of one’s way of life? Will that be equivalent to the Yoga of renunciation (Sanyasa Yoga)?

In the Hindu tradition, during every one’s life time, four time periods are prescribed: Early stage leading to adulthood, life as a family member, gradual and sustained withdrawal and the finally the stage of renunciation (Brahmacharyam, Grahastham, Vanaprasthan and Sanyasam). This hierarchy suggests that renunciation is the fourth and ultimate stage, coinciding with the late period of one’s life.  Also the image of the persons with minimum of clothing and possessions as the renunciates (Sanyasi) has been reinforced in Hindu culture. This view of renunciation associated with religious leaders and theologians is also noted in other religions and cultures. While these views and perceptions are valid and relevant from certain points of view, do these notions cloud our thinking and distance us from an important and valuable role of the Yoga of renunciation in our daily life?

The word “Sanyasa” in Sanskrit language stands for “that which separates or dissociates from …”.  To disassociate from or renounce something requires a pre-requisite of attachment. Hence renunciation is generally associated with giving up or abdicating desires. But, renunciation need not be merely an exercise in negation. Also as you grow older, with a deep inner feeling of “been there, done that”, renunciation may be easier to practice. Is it more of a convenient excuse? Instead the Yoga of renunciation may be applicable to anyone and at all ages?

The word Yoga in Sanskrit language stands for the “Union”. As a matter of practice Yoga refers to a conscious and voluntary exploration of the “self”. This process of inner exploration can be associated with any activity. Thus we have Karma Yoga (Conscious and voluntary engagement in all activities with mindfulness – a mind that is focused on the present), Bhakthi Yoga (Conscious and unrelenting faith in a larger order – the Lord), Gnana Yoga (relentless search for knowledge and understanding of all our thoughts and choices for action and faith), Dhyana Yoga (Yoga of meditation), etc. Hatha Yoga is the more popular usage of the term “Yoga”; it stands for conscious exploration of our physical body and its parts and their movements.

As a child one has many interests and preferences. But as we grow up choices have to be made. Often such choices become confusing, difficult and at times painful.  Could this be a place to practice the Yoga of renunciation?

As we grow older, there are preferences that we exhibit or habits that we imbibe as a part of life. Then we come to a cross road, where these habits or choices are not conducive for healthy living. We are advised against certain choices or preferences. The most common example is the need to give up salt or sweet for various health reasons. Could these be situations to practice the Yoga of renunciation?

There are times that a discussion drifts into derogation or mockery. You feel uncomfortable, but you cannot walk out as it will be obvious and uncomfortable for others. Perhaps this is a moment to practice the yoga of renunciation?

In the above situations, through the practice of the yoga of renunciation, one might come across as quiet, a recluse, aloof or not fully engaged with the social norm. Perhaps it is this fear of being seen as an “exclusive” or outside of the main stream, which often deters us from the practice of the Yoga of renunciation? This difficulty in the practice of the yoga of renunciation is recognized in a proverb in Tamil – an ancient Indian language. The proverb states: for one who appears to be recluse and aloof pay twice the attention. His mind may be active and alert to matters that most others would be missing!

How does one speak one’s mind, when it appears prudent to remain quiet? Isn’t such silence the practice of the Yoga of renunciation? A true internal reflection will reveal three possibilities: (a) it is a thoughtless  convenience and hence one can remain quiet. (b) There is a fear of the outcome – such as angering someone we like or letting down someone close to us – and hence we remain silent (c) Silent dis-association is seen as the best for the moment, but clear action and follow up is already planned in mind as the next steps with a commitment to follow through. There is no assurance that the desired outcome will happen, but there is an unrelenting commitment to the larger goal (which is not self-centered at its core) – and the process. These three pathways for the practice of yoga of renunciation are described as follows:

Renouncing activities which a person is obliged to perform is not proper.  Abandoning such activities in the name of renunciation arises out of a hidden desire and attachment. It is declared as ignorance in the practice of the Yoga of renunciation              B.G. 18.7.

The work or activity which is perceived as an obligation to be carried out, but it is not performed as a response to the influence of duality – love/hate, like/dislike, fear/bravery, etc. – is not renunciation. Instead it is abandonment arising out of turbulence or agitated state of mind.      B.G.18. 8.

All activities which should be performed and are carried out appropriately, while abandoning unbridled attachments to the outcome are described as tranquil activities in the pursuit of the yoga of renunciation.                B.G. 18. 9.

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