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Two pillars of yoga practice – Abhyasa (practice) and Vairagya (non-attachment)

Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, has given us this definition of Yoga:

Yogash-chitta-vritti-nirodhah (sutra 1.2)

"Yoga is defined as the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind-complex"

In practical terms, this sutra can be translated as "yoga is the ability to stay calm in all situations in life". When we say "all situations in life", it implies that no matter how dire or desperate the situation may seem, we need to learn how to stay totally calm and peaceful. Only with a calm mind can we handle even the most difficult situation in life effectively and efficiently. The reverse is also true – if we allow the mind to get disturbed, then any decision or action that we take with a disturbed mind cannot be the most effective and, in fact, can bring about negative results.

In subsequent sutras, Patanjali talks about the two pillars of yoga practice that will help us achieve that calmness of mind that we are seeking – abhyasa (practice) and vairagya (non-attachment).

abhyaasavairaagyaabhyaaM tannirodhaH (sutra 1.12)

"These mental modifications are restrained by practice and non-attachment"

Definition of Practice

sa tu dIraghakaala-nairantarya-satkaaraasevito dRuDhabhUmiH (sutra 1.14)

"Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness."

Definition of Non-attachment

dRushta-anushravika-viShayavitRushNasya vashIkaarasanjnaa vairaagyam (sutra 1.15)

"The consciousness of self-mastery in one who is free from craving for objects seen or heard about is non-attachment."

Abhyasa (practice)

Here, in sutra 1.14, Patanjali mentions three qualifications for "practice":

  1. Long time – long time could signify this entire life-time, or longer. Because the purpose of yoga practice is to control the fluctuations of the mind (sutra 1.2), long time could even mean multiple life-times as attainment of samadhi (total absorption in the self) may not be possible in one life. We may or may not attain ‘samadhi’ in this life; however, we all stand to derive all the other benefits from a regular yoga practice.
  2. Without Interruption: Here it strongly suggests fixing a regular schedule for the practice and maintaining it religiously, without interruption. So, let’s say that you decide to practice every morning for 35 minutes. Then, this schedule must be maintained without interruption. A shorter practice done on a regular basis is much more beneficial than to wait for a day when you can spend the full 1.5 hours for your practice.
  3. With reverent devotion: You need to be fully committed to the practice as you appreciate the benefits that it will bring.

Once you start practicing, you will soon begin to realize the benefits of your practice and then your commitment will grow accordingly. The most common reason mentioned for not practicing is lack of time. I can easily appreciate the very busy pace of modern life (especially corporate life) which indeed does not leave much spare time. In addition to work, people have family commitments and other social obligations. So it is definitely a challenge to allocate time for yoga practice. However, as with everything else, it is primarily a matter of setting the right priorities. If you consider your physical and mental health as important, then a regular yoga practice must find its place in your top priorities.

Vairagya (non-attachment)

The word Vairagya is derived from the word Raga which has been defined as the attraction which arises due to pleasure derived from any object. Vairagya therefore means the absence of any attraction towards objects which give pleasure. Vairagya also includes the term ‘dvesha’ (dislike) which arises as a result of repulsion from any object. Raga and dvesha are strong disturbing forces which create disturbances in the mind-field. It is important for the yogi to understand the significance of non-attachment as it is almost impossible to achieve chitta-vritti-nirodha unless one can eliminate raga and dvesha. Even to acheive a state of vairagya, constant practice (abhyasa) is needed.

The word "drishta" (seen) in the sutra is supposed to include the attraction that we feel through all the five senses – sight, touch, smell, taste, hearing. When we have a pleasurable experience through our senses, we develop a strong attachment for that object. This develops a strong desire in us to experience the same pleasure over and over again. It is when that pleasure is unavailable or denied to us for whatever reason, we become extremely unhappy or "stressed out". That is what causes suffering and pain in us.

In the sutra, ‘vishaya’ are the material objects which produce the attraction and consequent attachment. Desires can be classified in two ways. The first kind are the result of direct perception through the five senses. These are referred to as ‘drishta’ (seen) in the sutra. The second kind are those that followers of the orthodox religion expect to gain in the life after death. These include the desire of going to ‘heaven’ after death. According to our scriptures, even heaven is only a temporary abode and one must come back to human birth after spending a pre-dertermined time in heaven. To achieve final liberation, one must go beyond any such desires. Vairagya does not mean giving up desires because you are sick or old or have other preoccupations. An old man may lose his sex drive for the time-being. This is not vairagya. Vairagya implies conscious elimination of desires which lead to attachment. True vairagya cannot be attained by cutting yourself off from the material world and living in a forest. Real vairagya happens as a result of spiritual evolution which leads to the onset of ‘viveka’ or discrimination. The consciousness of one who has this kind of mastery over the senses has been termed as ‘vashikara samjna’.

Even while doing your own yoga practice, you need to keep the concept of vairagya in your mind. For example, let us say that you are not able to touch your toes in the standing forward bending pose (Uttanasana). One of the objectives of your yoga practice may be to touch the toes one day. You may have set a goal of achieving that objective in a month’s time. If you are attached to this outcome, you may be severely disappointed and disheartened if you are unable to touch the toes after a month’s practice. On the other hand, if you are not attached to this outcome, you will continue to practice without any negative feelings or any judgment. That way you stand a much better chance of achieving your goal soon.

The concept of non-attachment has been dealt with in great depth in the Bhagavad Gita. In one of the most often quoted shlokas, Lord Krishna says that we should do our duty without any attachment to the expected outcome of our actions (Bhagavad Gita shloka 2.47). Often our actions are motivated by some expected outcome. For example, we may work hard expecting a raise or a promotion. Non-attachment does not mean that we should not have set goals in life, or that our work is not motivated by goals. Non-attachment simply means that we are not attached to the expected result of our actions. We have full control only over the actions that we do. We do not have full control over what the outcome of our actions will be. However, if we don’t get the result that we expected, we feel miserable, dejected and disheartened. This is where the value of non-attachment comes in. When we understand the value of non-attachment, we accept the results of our actions without emotional upheaval. When the results are unfavorable, we can calmly analyze the whole situation and hopefully do a better job next time so that the projected goals can be achieved. This attitude will help us stay calm and peaceful in even the most difficult situations in life.

3 comments to Two pillars of yoga practice – Abhyasa (practice) and Vairagya (non-attachment)

  • Jeff

    Great post Subashji!

    Thankfully the corporate world better understands the need for mentally, spiritually and physically healthy people and so work life balance is much better than, say, a decade ago. However, this is linked to non-attachment as many people work themselves so hard because of their own desires and fears, stemming from their attachments. They desire the outcome of material prosperity or removal of fear of getting fired or power over others and so they work themselves harder and harder because of those attachments to outcomes. Earlier in my career I was forced to let go and not work so hard and I was surprised to find the incredible difference it made for my good and actually the good of my work and how much I enjoy it.

    If more people understood the benefits of non-attachment the world would be a different place altogether. Of course that understanding has to come from some level of dedication to Yoga or a suitable alternative for each individual and that seems to be harder and harder for people to do in this age, especially here in the west all the technology and entertainment consumption that distracts and weakens the mind.