Abhyasa and Vairagya – Foundations of Yoga
A complete study of yoga requires us to study and apply the concepts of Abhyasa and Vairagya. They are the two main principles upon which yoga is based. To have an in depth discourse about them, we need to understand what they are. Abhyasa is defined as practice and repetition of practice. “It is the art of learning that which has to be learned through cultivation of disciplined action. This involves long, zealous, calm and persevering effort.” (Iyengar, 1993, p5). Vairagya is renunciation, detachment or dispassion. It “is the art of avoiding that which should be avoided” (Iyengar, 1993, p5).
Before examining Abhyasa and Vairagya in detail, we need to have a thorough understanding of what yoga is. In our modern world, where our culture is dominated by consumption and instant gratification, yoga is often mistook for exercise and nothing more. Yoga, an ancient spiritual subject has been reduced to a workout, devoid of its philosophical foundation. Exercise is defined as bodily or mental exertion, especially for the improvement of health. Yoga does involve bodily and mental exertion via asanas (postures). And it does improve health. But yoga is not exercise. Exercise may be the reason some people practice yoga, but exercise does not constitute yoga.
So what then is yoga? Patanjali, a scholar living over 2000 years ago, is credited with collating and writing down the Yoga Sutras, 196 aphorisms that outline the philosophy of yoga. The Sutras not only provide yoga with a thorough and consistent philosophical basis, they also clarify many important concepts. Sutra 1.2 states Yogah cittavrtti nirodhah, translated as “yoga is the cessation of the movements of the consciousness”. Consciousness (citta) is our ability to be aware and is made up of mind, intelligence and ego. Vrttis are the fluctuations in consciousness or loosely translated, thought waves constantly disturbing our minds. Yoga is the restraint of the fluctuations of the consciousness or the restraint of fluctuating thought. Yoga gives us methods for understanding the mind and helps to quieten it.
What are fluctuations of consciousness?
Fluctuations of consciousness (vrttis) are the constant thought waves we have, either negative or positive that keep our minds constantly busy. Fluctuations are often the reactions we have to our life circumstances. Due to our past, we may have a predisposition to react in a certain way in certain circumstances. For example, a person who has suffered many disappointments might come to always expect disappointment and react in a negative way in many situations. Likewise a person might develop a predisposition to irritability, anger or sadness and react in a manner that is unwarranted in some situations. Fluctuations of consciousness also refer to our habits or our addictions that condition us to behave in a certain way rather than letting us react to each new circumstance with a fresh and open mind. Even the resistance we sometimes have to go to class or get up early and practice are fluctuations of Citta.
These fluctuations or vibrations of Citta are like waves and may have large or small amplitude, or high or low frequency. With ongoing dedicated practice (Abhyasa) and detachment (Vairagya), yoga curbs these vibrations. Like the wake of boat through calm water, the amplitude and frequency of the ripples decrease and the waves eventually fade and disappear. The practioner becomes quiet, only silence and stillness remain.
Quietening the fluctuations
How are we to overcome these disturbances, the fluctuations of Citta? We are given clues by Patanjali. Sutra 1.12 states abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah, translated as “Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness.” The fluctuations of consciousness are to be controlled through practice (Abhyasa). Dedicated students of yoga know the experience of quietness in Savasana after working intensely in asana. This is the practical application of yoga philosophy. This is stilling the movements of consciousness. If studying the Sutras by reading the literature is the pure form of studying yoga philosophy, practising Abhyasa and Vairagya and observing the subsequent quietening of the mind during asana practice is the applied form. This is yoga philosophy in action.
However, Iyengar states that in order to restrain the fluctuations, force of will is necessary, hence a degree of rajas is involved. (Iyengar, 1993, P61). Rajas is vibrancy or dynamism. We have to be dynamic in our efforts in asana. We need to apply a level of intensity if we are to see results. We have to try. We have to apply great effort, otherwise there will be no change. Delivering our bodies to class and letting our minds abscond is not enough. We must stay engaged, focussed, remain present.
Patanjali continues his treatise and emphasises the importance of practice in Sutras 1.13 and 1.14 below:
1.13 tatra sthitau yatnah abhyasah
“Practice is the steadfast effort to still these fluctuations.”
1.14 sa tu dirghakala nairantarya satkara asevitah drdhabhumih
“Long, uninterrupted, alert practice is the firm foundation for restraining the fluctuations.”
In Sutra 1.15, Patanjali turns to Vairagya (detachment) drsta anusravika visaya vitrsnasya vasikarasamjna vairagyam translated as “Renunciation is the practice of detachment from desires.”
Vairagya provides for energy withdrawal inward. The first stage of Vairagya is to learn to observe oneself. Yoga is the study of self and self-study begins with self-observation. From the very first class, your teacher will ask you to recline over a bolster and observe yourself – your legs, chest, shoulders and face. Observe where there is tension in the body. Observe the state of your mind. From observing tension and non-tension in the body, we progress towards observing the senses of perception. The tongue, eyes, ears, nose and skin. We learn to quieten them. This act of self-watching is the commencement of self-study. To study ourselves we must look inward. So our energy turns inward we become detached, balancing the outward energy generated by asana practice. (Iyengar, 2005, pp99&100).
Practising Vairagya allows for a culturing process, refinement of our bodies and minds. Our mind becomes quiet but sharp. Because we are focussing so deeply in asana on what we are doing in the present– pressing the mound of the big toe, turning the thigh out and so on, we do not have the time or space to wonder what we will do in the future, what we will cook for dinner, the jobs we must do tomorrow. Or to ponder about what happened in the past – what happened earlier in the day or what we should have done yesterday. We are completely absorbed by whether our legs are extending in tadasana, our shoulders lifted in sirsasana or the shoulder blades are up and in in sarvangasana. It is this all absorbing aspect of yoga which draws our energy inward and leads us to Vairagya. It is this aspect that quiets our mind and we inevitably feel better than before we started.
Vairagya (renunciation) doesn’t mean that we disengage from the world around us. On the contrary, Vairagya allows us to perceive clearly situations for what they really are and to make choices or take action based on correct knowledge due to our sharpened sense of perception.
The importance of Abhyasa and Vairagya
The concepts of Abhyasa and Vairagya are important as they provide the foundations of yoga. If we practice asana without Abhyasa then we practice without discipline, discrimination or effort. If these qualities are absent, there is no effect, no achievement in yoga. We merely create the shape of the asana on the outside of our bodies but change does not occur internally and the mind remains busy, agitated. Yoga is reduced merely to exercise.
If we practice asana without Vairagya there is an absence of yogic-ness in the practice. The outward energy created by asana increases and ego becomes overly inflated causing misperception of ourselves. There is an inflated sense of self. Misperception can lead to misconduct as sometimes observed in elite athletes (for example football players of various codes), where there is an absence of inward turning energy to balance the effect of the external forces created by their exercise.
We start yoga as beginners dealing with the awkwardness of our gross bodies. We learn how to straighten the knees, lengthen the spine, lift the chest and roll the shoulders back. But we work toward evermore subtlety. The mound of the big toe is more subtle than the knee, spreading the little toe is more subtle than pressing the mound of the big toe. This may not be our goal. Our goal in yoga may initially be mere exercise. A quest to achieve health and fitness. But if we apply Abhyasa and Vairagya, we will inevitably gain subtlety in our practice ability. Our bodies and minds become refined and cultured.
Iyengar, BKS, 1993, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, The Aquarian Press, Harper Collins Publishers, London.
Iyengar, BKS, 2005, Light on Life, Rodale, Holtzbrinck Publishers, USA.