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Abhyasa and Vairagya

Updated: Jan 17, 2022

Maharishi Patanjali, thought to be the founder of classical yoga philosophy, compiled centuries of traditions and practices into his Yoga Sutras. The Yoga Sutras are a collection of 196 aphorisms that offer a step-by-step guide for personal transformation. Written more than 1,700 years ago, the sutras have since inspired many translations and commentaries, including modern versions by yoga fathers, Swami Satchitananda, B.K.S. Iyengar, and T.K.V. Desikachar.

Yoga, according to Patanjali, is the stilling of the uncontrolled movement of the mind. In Sutra 1.12, Patanjali teaches that one of the many ways in which this state of yoga can be achieved is through the practice of abhyasa and vairagya. Patanjali defines abhyasa as disciplined practice that is employed in order to reach a state of harmony with one’s own self. Whereas, vairagya is the state in which one “no longer wants for either earthly objects or spiritual attainments”. Vairagya has also been translated and thought of as release, surrender or letting go.

In Sutra 1:12, where abhyasa and vairagya first appear, Patanjali uses these ideas to instruct on how to calm the vrittis – the mind’s restless, swirling thoughts. In Swami Satchitananda's subsequent translation of Sutra 1.12 he wrote, “Always keep your high aim to control the restless mind” and in B.K.S. Iyengar's later work on the sutras, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, he wrote, “Abhyasa Vairagyabhyam Tannirodhah – practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness.” Consequently, many consider that the abhyasa of continuous practice and the art of vairagya and letting go are two of the most fundamental parts of being able to still the mind in the practice of yoga. These two notions – balancing practice and detachment – when combined, invite us to enjoy the process of achieving our goals, but letting go of the final result.

In what is fast becoming a disconnected digital era with our focus constantly being pulled in different directions, the ability to be present is difficult and so practicing something like yoga or mindfulness to stay connected to ourselves is increasingly important. As we become more skilled at combining abhyasa and vairagya, we can use the balance of dedicated practice and then letting go of results to become more present and less busy in our heads.

We live in a world where we're bombarded with stimuli 24/7, our minds constantly processing all the information that’s thrown at us. Whether the information is valuable or not, it doesn’t matter; the mind still needs to deal with it. Eventually, we get used to that level of stimulus and start to crave it if things become quiet. So we end up browsing, looking for more; it doesn’t matter what, as long as we fill the void. This is where abhyasa is integral for getting on the mat. This means practicing when you want to practice, but also when life gets in the way, when you least feel like it, or when you’re distracted. It means getting on your mat if you’re tired, stiff, bored, or stressed. In doing this, we refocus our commitment by recognising resistance and accepting it, moving beyond; and finally choose to let go of attachment – or vairagya – to the outcome of the practice. This can be put into action when life gets stressful or overwhelming, or simply when things don't go as expected.

Baron Baptiste in his book Perfectly Imperfect writes, “We live in a world that teaches the importance of ambition, efficiency, expediency, getting things done to produce the quickest results. It does not teach or encourage us to relax and just be where we are”, which is a great example of both abhyasa and vairagya. Abhyasa in that yoga is a lifelong practice and not something you can complete in a short amount of time and vairagya and non-attachment because ambition and ego in yoga may result in negativity, leaving us feeling dejected if we don’t nail a handstand or seamlessly glide into the splits.

One of the aims of yoga is to discourage listening to the ego because it is that which causes attachment, making it something that potentially keeps us from knowing who we truly are and what we are really like. The process of detaching (vairagya) permits space for perspective, knowing to let go when when things go well, but also when they don't.

When talking about the future, Yuval Noah Harari author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, says the only thing we can guarantee is the continued pace of change and level of unpredictability. And so a critical skill of today is developing the ability to continue to show up and practice yoga, helping to self-regulate and control focus no matter what is thrown at us tomorrow.

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