Abhyasa and Vairagya: Two Disciplines of Yoga for Mind Regulation

Patanjali’s Yogasutras is the greatest mental exploration system that has been presented to us centuries ago. It is explained by Maharshi Patanjali that Yoga is the way to oppose the uncontrolled movements of the mind (Chittavrittis). Thus, the most basic practice according to Patanjali is the mental practice of Yoga.

Patanjali does not limit the Yoga lifestyle to only the physical aspects but emphasizes more on regulating the mind and thoughts which are most of the time the cause of our sufferings.

In this article, we will discuss the two important disciplines of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras The “Abhyasa” and “Vairagya”. These two disciplines are considered the fundamental step to master the thought that takes place in the mind. By mastering the thought, we regulate the mind thus master it.

Sufferings originates from the Mind

We see most of us undergo the Kleshas (causes of suffering) in some way or another. If we look at the nature of our problems, we can observe that most of them are originating from the mind. All the Chitta vrittis (unnecessary chattering of the mind) are the ones actually causing troubles, not mundane world problems (that seems like the cause of suffering).

To stop being regulated by the mind and to be able to regulate the mind itself, is one of the goals of Yoga. Patanjali points out the two most important disciplines that help regulate the mind and eventually lead the person to freedom from all the impressions of the mind.

These two disciplines are Abhyasa and Vairagya. They are explained in the first chapter of Yoga Sutra “Samadhi Pada” in verse 1.12. The sutra goes like this;


“Abhyavairagyabhyan Tannirodhaha”

Abhyasa and Vairgya are the two ways to calm the restlessness of the mind.

— Maharishi Patanjali, Yoga Sutras 1.12

What is Abhyasa?

The literal meaning of the word Abhyasa is ‘practice’ or ‘consistent study’. For example, the study of Yoga is called Yogabhyasa.

The word ‘Abhyasa’ is rooted in the meaning ‘to sit’. However, Abhyasa does not imply any form of casual sitting. It refers to the deeper aspects of sitting, one that is persistent, not interrupted by trivial things, and one in which a person enjoys without experiencing boredom.

Abhyasa is the condition where a person is involved in serious practice and builds a drive in it. With practice, not only does he become better, but also, he craves more and more practice. Just as a little infant is learning to walk, he enjoys the process. He may fall a lot but still manages to get up and practice his newly learned skill. It’s something we can ‘Abhyasa’.

Through Abhyasa one can indulge in the serious yet enjoyable practice of his spiritual tasks and can win over the uncontrollable mind. It is the consistent effort to bring our systems in line, in rhythm with one another.

Abhyasa according to the Yogasutras

In the yoga sutra, Abhyasa is defined in Sutra 1.13 and 1.14. Patanjali says in verse 1.13;


‘Tatra Sthitau Yatno-bhyasah’.

Abhyasa is the practice or discipline employed to achieve and remain stable in the state of harmony with our own self.

— Yoga Sutra 1.13

However, the stability that is explained here is not of a temporary form. It means that the stability through Abhyasa, once achieved, should be present with you most or all of the time. Only then it’s considered Abhyasa.

Persistent repetition of the spiritual practice is key to discovering the calmer sides of the mind and settling there. That is why Patanjali further elaborates Abhyasa in verse 1.14 as the practice done for a long time, probably years, without interruptions. Abhyasa should be performed with great honor and respect. It is then that a person settles in Abhyasa and learns to negate the modifications of the mind. 


After explaining Abhyasa, then comes the next discipline Vairagya.

What is Vairagya?

Vairagya refers to non-attachment. We often misunderstand Vairagya for the behavior which involves leaving one’s family, friends, and taking shelter in the Himalayas for one’s spiritual journey. However, it should be noted that Vairagya is not only for Sanyasis. It is the practice for all to be detached from the action, so from the impressions of the mind.

The word Vairagya is rooted in the word ‘raga’, which means coloring. But the word Vairagya literally means going colorless. Here, colorless is stated in terms of getting rid of the colors of the attachments to people, objects, ideas, and so on the materialistic things.

Why is it necessary to practice non-attachment? It’s because the colors of the connections that we hold with other people or things tend to influence our perception of identifying with our own self. In some way or the other, they cause us sufferings as we are always at their mercy. 

The way we have a natural tendency for possessions of materialistic things in life, it’s the first step we take towards attachment. The practice to refrain mind from unnecessary possession is called Aparigraha; the last of 5 Yamas in yoga. Therefore Aparigraha can be said a preparatory practise of Vairagya.

Vairagya according to the Yogasutras

Verse 1.15 explains Vairagya as ‘Drishta Anushravika Vishaya Vritrishnasya Vashikara Sanjna Vairagyam’. It means ‘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 state is called Vairagya.

Our mental energies are always stuck upon the pleasurable things that we see or hear. Patanjali asks us to extract those energies from the object and give them a path that can lead us to mental freedom. It’s the first step to the path of Vairagya.

Vairagya is an essential quality of the yogi to gain mastery over the visible or invisible attachments. It is the abandonment of the false impressions of the mind which create unreal interpretations of ourselves and the world around us.

Patanjali further elaborates on this in verse 1.16 ‘Tat Param Purusha Khyateh Guna Vaitrshnyam’. It means that non-attachment to the subtlest elements, constituent principles or the qualities (3 Gunas) themselves, achieved through the knowledge of pure consciousness, is called supreme non-attachment (Param Vairagya).

Patanjali calls Param Vairagya or the highest form of Vairagya to that state in which the yogi is detached from not only the gross aspects of the world but also becomes so unattached that he gives up Sattva, Rajas and Tamas themselves. 

Patanjali says that when a yogi is able to distinguish between the true and false impressions of the mind, he learns Vairagya. And when he is settled in his true self, he understands that the true happiness lies within and not outside. Hence, by renouncing all the outer attachments, the yogi is blissed in his own real self.

How do Abhyasa and Vairagya Work Together?

The concepts of Abhyasa and Vairagya, though sound opposite of each other, they work together to stand as mental pillars to regulate our mind. They are the complementary processes toward self-exploration.

Practising these two means finding a balance between effort and ease. For instance, through Abhyasa, you put a lot of effort into a task (or “Practice”) but through Vairagya, you find ease in that practice by not getting attached to it. Thus both these disciplines complement each other.

Abhyasa offers the right path to self-exploration. Whereas Vairagya makes sure that you are not sidelined from that path while exploring yourself. In simple words, if Abhyasa teaches you to practice mental disciplines humbly and respectfully, Vairagya ensures you are not distracted in that state by the attachments of the world. 

Applying Abhyasa and Vairagya in Day-to-Day Life

We live life as social beings. That means, whatever goes around in society or our surroundings affect us physically, mentally, or emotionally. Increasing changes in the world outside us have started impacting the world within us. 

To balance the mental picture, we have to practice Abhyasa and Vairagya in our daily lives. Here are some ways that can help you cultivate Abhyasa and Vairagya in day-to-day life.

1. Combine Effort and Ease

Abhyasa and Vairagya are two important keys to achieving higher mental functioning. For this, you can start with combining effortful as well as calming practices to your exercise routine. You can perform rigorous exercises like jogging, cycling, 108 Sun salutations, or other body loosening practices. Following those, you can practice more calming ones like yin yoga, deep breathing, mindful meditation, etc.

The efforts that you put in while doing the diligent exercises manifest your Abhyasa as you perform them carefully with energy and effort. They take your boredom away and clear your mind. Whereas the calmer exercise should be practised to achieve the quietness of the mind; to detach the mind from external faculties, which reflects Vairagya.

2. Mentally Travel from Gross to Subtle

The practice of Abhyasa and Vairagya can be achieved with careful efforts. You have to observe what comes and goes from your mind. When you sit on your mat for meditation or deep breathing, ensure you are aware of the projections of your mind. 

It will automatically come if you adopt the method of understanding your mental workings from gross to subtle. When you sit to meditate, observe what are the most trivial things that your mind is making up. When you learn and later dissociate with them, you move to the subtler aspects. 

This exercise will paint quite a picture of how our mind plays little games with us and how through intense yoga practice we can win them.

3. Keep yourself engaged while being aware of yourself

Awareness is the essence of meditation that can be the best way to put Abhyasa and Vairagya together. Why we aren’t able to continue the practice for a longer time (i.e. Abhayasa) is because we lose awareness in no time after starting the practice. On being aware of ourselves in a true sense, we can resist the mind not flowing into the positive or negative of practice.

So awareness is the key to maintaining Abhayasa and Vairagya. Bring awareness in every aspect of life; be aware of what we are thinking, what we are doing, what we eating, how we are breathing, how we are feeling, etc.

4. Keep practicing

The key to staying in the rhythm of a yogic lifestyle is never to cease to practice. Abhyasa can be a real struggle, but it is the most necessary component to attain positive mental health. With regular, effortful practice, you can learn to differentiate between your true self and the one that is made up by your mind. This will later help you in negating the false impressions of the mind.

When you practice different asanas, maintain steadiness. Because with steadiness comes calmness and the ability to clear the mind from the distracting stuff.

Hence, keep practicing the yogic lifestyle both on and off the mat. Don’t let the mental afflictions control you, instead through Abhyasa and Vairagya, gain control over the mind.

5. Keeping track of your Attachments and Aversions

As we read above, Vairagya is not just a practice of letting go, it is the practice of not taking on in the first place. Hence, to practice Vairagya in daily life, you can make a list of your attachments and aversions. Things, people, habits, or ideas you are attracted to and the things, people, habits, or ideas you have aversion to. 

This exercise helps in understanding the things that we really need and things that we don’t. Once you understand the difference between what you really want and what your mind is irrationally making you want, you learn the differentiation between real and unreal. As this realization happens, you can work on the non-attachment aspects through deeper meditation.

6. Minimize the Coloring of the Mind

Our mind is the expert in creating a colorful world for us. Sometimes, these colors are the shades of false interpretations of ourselves and the world. They are generally reflected through our pleasures, likes, dislikes, wants, greed, etc. 

Via meditation, deep breathing, and focusing, you can minimize this coloring of the mind. When you are totally engrossed in the practice of yoga, you find yourself becoming less needy of the material things. Acceptance comes to you as a fruit of a regular yogic routine.

Conclusion

Abhyasa and Vairagya are the two legs to walk on the road of Yoga. If one of them is impaired or not practised, it is impossible to reach the Samadhi; the ultimate goal of yoga. The essence of bringing the wandering mind to one place lies in practising Abhyasa and Vairagya.

Maharshi Patanjali has thus given the utmost importance to them as pillars to regulate the mind from the unnecessary and trouble-causing instruments. And if we are well settled in these two-fold aspects of Abhyasa and Vairagya, we can certainly know to regulate the mind to see its Swaroopa (one’s true self).

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