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Abhyasa & Vairagya – the Two Pillars

3 February 2014

Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, gives us this definition of Yoga:

Yoga Sutra 1.2 – Yogash-chitta-vritti-nirodhah – “Yoga is the mastery (or control) of the modifications (fluctuations) of the mind-field.” For practical purposes, this sutra can be translated as; “yoga is the ability to remain calm in all situations in life”. When considering “all situations in life”, it implies that no matter how critical or desperate any situation may appear, yoga teaches us to learn how to stay calm and peaceful in spite of the disturbances (thoughts – both gross and subtle) occurring in the mind. A calm mind is a prerequisite to handling even the most difficult situations in life, effectively and efficiently. The opposite is also true; if we allow the mind to get unsettled, then any decision we make (or action that we take) will likely be ineffective, in fact, it may even be self-defeating and bring about negative results. In (sutras 1.12-1.16), Patanjali talks about the “two pillars of yoga practice” that will help us achieve that state of mental calmness that we are seeking; abhyasa (practice) and vairagya (non-attachment).

Sutra 1.12 – abhyasa vairagyabhyam tat nirodhah – “These mental modifications (fluctuations of thought patterns) are restrained (stilled, quieted) through practice and non-attachment.”

Patanjali’s definition of practice (abhyasa) Sutra 1.14 – sah tu dirgha kala nairantaira satkara asevitah dridha bhumih – “Practice becomes firmly grounded when done for a long time, without a break (or interruption), and with sincere devotion.”

Note the three qualifications for “practice”:

  1. 1. Long time – long time could imply this entire life-time, but in a more practical sense, and because the purpose of yoga practice is to control the modifications of the mind, regularity is the key.
  2. 2. Without interruption: For example, if you plan to practice 2-3 hours per day when your current lifestyle may not permit that on a consistent basis you will probably have an intermittent practice and the regularity will be broken. It would be much better to pick an amount of time (and time of day) when you can maintain your regular practice religiously and without interruption. A shorter practice done on a regular basis is much more beneficial than to wait for a day or so when you can dedicate hours to continuous practice.
  3. 3. With sincere devotion: You need to be fully committed to the practice in order to fully appreciate the benefits that it will bring. Swamiji says: “As you choose your proper level of practice, and decide to do that daily, the attitude will come more easily. It is like having a little flame of desire in the heart for the fruits of meditation, and then slowly starting to experience those benefits. That little flame starts to grow slowly and consistently into a burning desire to guide your life in the direction of spiritual realization.”

Patanjali’s definition of non-attachment (vairagya) Sutra 1.15 – drista anushravika vishaya vitrishnasya vashikara sanjna vairagyam – “When the mind is free from the desire even for objects seen, heard or described in a tradition (or in scriptures), it acquires a state desirelessness which is called non-attachment (vairagya).”

The Sanskrit word Vairagya is derived from the word Raga which is defined as the attraction (or desire) which arises due to pleasure associated with any object. Therefore Vairagya would mean the absence of any attraction towards (or desire for) objects which give pleasure. Vairagya also may include repulsion or dislike (dvesha) which arises as a result of distaste (or loathing) for any object. Both raga and dvesha are powerful disturbing forces which create the modifications in the mind-field, so it is extremely important for the practicing student or yogi to understand the significance of non-attachment as it is nearly impossible to achieve chitta-vritti-nirodha unless one can eliminate (or at least remain unaffected by) raga and dvesha. So, even to achieve a state of vairagya, continuous practice (abhyasa) is needed.

There is much more to be said about non-attachment (vairagya), but that will be discussed further in a future blog article.

Of related interest, click on: The Wisdom of Patanjali

*Rae Indigo is ERYT500.

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