Being & Becoming - Abhyasa & Vairāgya
written by Matthäa Mollenhauer
The sutras 1-1.11 of Patanjali are about our daily actions in life, the different thoughts we have about ourselves & others, how we can regulate them and create more mindfulness and awareness in our daily practice. Verse 1.12 of the yoga sutras is dedicated to potentially two of the most important tools we need to develop, to support this practice: Abhyasa & Vairāgya. Following Patanjali, they denote a crucial part of spiritual practice to oppose the uncontrolled movements of the mind (Chittavrittis).
1.12 अभ्यासवैराग्याभ्यां तन्निरोधः
abhyâsa = Practice, consistent study, effort
vairâgya = Detachment, Non-Attachment, Dispassion
âbhyâm = both together
tan–nirodhah = calming the uncontrolled movements of the mind (Chittavrittis)
This verse translates as “Abhyasa and Vairgya are the two ways to calm the restlessness of the mind.” (Maharishi Patanjali)
The principles of Abhyasa & Vairāgya represent the contrasts of each other, forming a peak of completion in spiritual self-exploration. Vairagya can be understood as the art of detachment and being fully present in the moment and beauty of existence, whilst Abhyasa characterizes the practice to evolve at the own spiritual journey, taming the spirit and becoming a higher version of yourself.
This can be practiced with every sort of Sadhana (spiritual practice), but also psychological work and integrating mindfulness in our everyday life. Regulating the mind and not getting lost in Chitta vrittis (monkey mind) is a lifelong journey.
Why do we need the consistent study of mind regulation?
The word ‘Abhyasa’ originates from the meaning ‘to sit’. This doesn’t describe the actual form of casually sitting, but includes a deeper understanding of persistently sitting, involving in a serious practice without losing yourself in boredom or trivial thoughts. The longer we practice, the deeper we grow into it and start to crave it, settling into our dedication. When we start to enjoy our dedicated practice, we fall deeper into our Abhyasa and indulge in the spiritual tasks to win over the uncontrollable mind. The consistent effort creates a rhythm: By mastering the thought, we regulate the mind.
But the stability of this effort needs to be ubiquitous, not temporary. Only when it’s present most of the time, can it be considered true Abhyasa. This practice should be done for a longer timeframe, even years, without interruptions with great honour and respect. This is further elaborated by Patanjali in verse 1.14.
The counterpart, ‘Vairagya’ refers to non-attachment and is rooted in the word ‘raga’, meaning coloring. The practice of Vairagya means going colorless, being detached from every action, objects, ideas and impressions of the mind.
Why is it necessary to practice non-attachment?
Because the attachments we hold onto, the colors of connections that we hold, have an impact on how we identify with our own self, the sense of self-perception. This practice of detachment is closely connected with the last of 5 Yamas in the eight limbs of Yoga: Aparigraha, the practice to refrain mind from unnecessary possession. We naturally tend to lean towards possession and materialistic things, which directly leads to attachment. By taking a step back from this desire to possess, Aparigraha is a preparatory practice of Vairagya.
Patanjali goes deeper into the understanding of Vairagya in verse 1.15. He states: Drishta Anushravika Vishaya Vritrishnasya Vashikara Sanjna Vairagyam’ which can be translated as ‘when the mind loses desires for the objects that are seen, described in tradition or mentioned in the scriptures, it acquires a state of pure desirelessness’ (vashikara). This status of pure desirelessness, the art of simply being, is Vairagya.
By abandoning the false impressions of visible and invisible attachments, we can truly interpret ourselves and our surroundings. And when we truly settle in, we find happiness and bliss within our own, real self.
Abhyasa and Vairagya working together
The concepts of Abhyasa and Vairagya can be understood as two poles on the path to spirituality – the opposites of each other creating balance and regulating our mind. They work together as two complementary tools on the journey of self-exploration. Balancing out these tools means finding a balance between effort and ease in everyday tasks. Thereby we can evolve without getting too attached to the process of evolving.
Practicing Abhyasa and Vairagya in your Asana practice
Whatever is going on in the world around us, will have an impact on us physically, mentally, or emotionally. Practicing Abhyasa and Vairagya in our daily lives can help to cultivate more balance and inner stability. Here are some ways, to integrate them in your day-to-day practice:
Find a combination of effort and ease in your asana practice. By alternating your exercise between physically effortful and activating movements and soothing practices you can invite equilibrium. A strong asana practice could include a dynamic vinyasa flow sequence, paired with activating Kappalabhati breathing, taking your boredom away and manifesting Abhyasa in your practice. This should be followed by calming exercises, such as longer meditation, Nadi Shodhana or Yin Yoga, inviting quietness of the mind and contentment in simply being, nurturing Vairagya.
Another way of integrating these qualities could be alternating your vinyasa practice between active and passive variations of asanas. For example, finding an active straddle pose, creating effort to reach a little bit further, before unwinding in a yin variation, rounding your back, and letting go.
Go ahead and try to look at every single effort as the act of planting a seed, watering and caring for it, offering your welfare and dedication. And then, after nurturing the seed with all its necessities, lean back in release, letting go of your expectation and patiently wait for it to bloom.
Further reading & sources