Abhyasa and Vairagya are frequently used terms in the yoga world appearing in texts such as The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, Samkhya Karika, Bhagavad Gita, Gitartha Samgraha, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. But what do they mean?
In this article, we’ll look at:
- The meaning of abhyasa and vairagya
- Abhyasa and vairagya as they appear in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra
- Abhyasa and vairagya quotes to help us understand their meaning
Often simplified as effort (abhyasa) and ease (vairagya), these concepts are complementary to each other and considered regulators of the mind which when practiced together are tools for reaching samadhi.
What is abhyasa?
Translations of abhyasa include:
- (Diligent) practice
- Perseverant spiritual practice
The word abhyasa is rooted in “to sit”. We can interpret this as to “sit” in the practice with presence avoiding boredom, apathy, or distraction. It’s important to note that abhyasa is not just a sit-down meditation practice but something that becomes a part of our daily lives and is definitely an “off the mat” practice.
The “effort” of abhyasa is cultivated through perseverance to attain stability of mind and through this one begins to crave more practice, therefore, attaining the goal of samadhi with greater speed. Edwin Bryant describes abhyasa or practice as “the effort to concentrate the mind.”
What is vairagya?
Translations of vairagya include:
- Absence of craving for sense objects
The word vairagya is rooted in raga (color) but the term vairagya can be literally translated as “growing pale”. Richard Rosen’s interpretation is “that our consciousness is typically “colored” by our attachments, whether they are objects, other people, ideas, or other things. These attachments influence how we identify with ourselves and with others.”
Vairagya is a tool to take the color, craving, and distraction of attachments out of our lives. Encouraging the ability to discriminate between what is false and our true nature it helps us to find freedom from desires and lead us away from material distractions.
Abhyasa and Vairagya together
The ideas of abhyasa and vairagya help us to balance practice and consistent effort to seek self-realization while surrendering all sense objects and attachments that impede spiritual practice. Simply put abhyasa is self-exploration and vairagya is the thing that stops us from getting distracted on the path.
Abhyasa and Vairagya in the Yoga Sutra
Let’s take a look at abhyasa and vairagya quotes found in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali from B. K. S. Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutra translation.
I.12 Abhyāsa vairāgyābhyāṁ tannirodhaḥ
Practice and detachment are the means to still the movement of consciousness
I.13 tatra sthitau yatnaḥ
Practice is the steadfast effort to still these fluctuations.
I.14 sa tu dīrghakāla nairantarya satkāra āsevitaḥ dṛḍhabhūmiḥ
Long, interrupted, alert practice is the firm foundation for restraining the fluctuations.
I.15 dṛśṭa ānuśravika viṣaya vitṛṣṇasya vaśīkārasaṃjñā vairāgyam
Renunciation is the practice of detachment from desires.
The ultimate renunciation is when one transcends the qualities of nature and perceives the soul.
I.18 virāmpratyaya abhyāsapūrvaḥ saṁskāraseṣaḥ anyaḥ
The void arising in these experiences is another samadhi. Hidden impressions lie dormant, but spring up during moments of awareness, creating fluctuations and disturbing the purity of consciousness.
I.32 tatpratiṣedhārtham ekatattva abhyāsaḥ
Adherence to single-minded effort prevents these impediments.
“Abhyasa (practice) is a dedicated, unswerving, constant, and vigilant search into a chosen subject pursued against all odds in the face of repeated failures, for indefinitely long periods of time.” – B. K. S. Iyengar
“Abhyasa is just recognizing the moment when you are free, fresh, full, and totally in the moment.” – Sri Ravi Shankar
“Evolutionary practice is the onward march towards discovery of the Self, involving yama, niyama, asana, and pranayama. The involutionary path of renunciation involves pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samhadi. This inward journey detaches the consciousness from external objects.” – B. K. S. Iyengar Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
“The very heart of yoga practice is abhyasa – steady effort in the direction you want to go.” – Sally Kempton
“Yoga, explained by Patanjali, is powered by both practice and dispassion. Practice (abhyasa) is the discipline of inner unification or simplification by which the clutter of external things and concerns is held at bay and which discloses the ultimate simplicity, or singularity, of the transcendental Self (Purusha). – Georg Feuerstein The Path of Yoga
“For practice to be successful it must be steady and cultivated over a long period of time.” – Georg Feuerstein The Path of Yoga
“Abhyasa (practice) is the art of learning that which has to be learned through the cultivation of disciplined action. This involves long, zealous, calm and persevering effort.” – B. K. S. Iyengar Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
“To be adept in yoga, yama and niyama must be observed carefully throughout the yoga sadhana. This is abhyasa. The disregarding of ideas and actions which obstruct progress in sadhana is vairagya.” – B. K. S. Iyengar Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
“Abhyasa is a dedicated, unswerving, constant, and vigilant search into a chosen subject, pursued against all odds in the face or repeated failures, for indefinitely long periods of time.” – B. K. S. Iyengar Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
“Dispassion or non-attachment is one of the keystones of spiritual life.” – Georg Feuerstein The Path of Yoga
“Dispassion (vairagya), according to the Yoga-Sutra (I.15) of Patanjali, is “the awareness of mastery of him who is not thirsting after visible [that is, earthly] and revealed [that is, invisible] things. The ‘revealed’ objects spoken of here are those promised in the sacred texts, such as heavenly delights.” – Georg Feuerstein The Path of Yoga
“Vairagya (detachment or renunciation) is the art of avoiding that which should be avoided.” .” – B. K. S. Iyengar Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
“Vairagya is the cultivation of freedom from passion, abstention from worldly desires and appetites, and discrimination between the real and unreal.” – B. K. S. Iyengar Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
“With the help of intelligence, the senses commence an inner journey and return to their point of origin. This process of weighing one’s instincts, thoughts and actions is the practice of renunciation (vairagya).” – B. K. S. Iyengar The Tree if Yoga
Abhyasa and vairagya quotes
Now let’s take a look at some abhyasa and vairagya quotes to help us better understand their underlying principles of effort and surrender.
“Vairagya is non-attachment to life, because it is the will to enjoy that brings all this bondage in its train; and abhyasa is constant practice of any one of the Yogas” – Swami Vivekananda
“Practice is the positive aspect of yoga; detachment or renunciation (vairagya) the negative. The two balance each other like day and night, inhalation, and exhalation. Practice is the path of evolution; detachment and renunciation the path of involution.” – B. K. S. Iyengar Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
“Concentration and absorption are different aspects of the same yolking process, the former belonging more to the effortful domain of abhyasa, the latter to vairagya. Together they restrain the patterning of consciousness (citta-vritti) to the point where it is reflective, and subject, object, and perceiving coalesce.” – Chip Hartranft The Yoga-Sutra if Patanjali
“…pratyahara is considered to be a hinge or pivotal movement on yoga’s path, when the energies created by practice (abhyasa) need to be matched and balanced by the prudence of detachment (vairagya).” – B. K. S. Iyengar Light on Life
“Freedom, that is to say direct experience of samadhi, can be attained only by disciplined conduct and renunciation of sensual desires and appetites. This is brought about through adherence to the ‘twin pillars’ of yoga, abhyasa and vairagya.” – B. K. S. Iyengar Light on the yoga Sutras of Patanjali
“Both require a virtuous and positive approach.”– B. K. S. Iyengar Light on the yoga Sutras of Patanjali
“Abhyasa builds confidence and refinement in the process of culturing the consciousness, whereas vairagya is the elimination of whatever hinders progress and refinement. Proficiency in vairagya develops the ability to free oneself from the fruits of action.” – B. K. S. Iyengar Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
“If abhyasa and vairagya are assiduously observed, restraint of the mind becomes possible much more quickly. Then, one may explore what is beyond the mind, and taste the nectar of immortality, or Soul-realization. Temptations neither daunt nor haunt one who has intensity of heart in practice and renunciation. If practice is slowed down, then the search for Soul-realization becomes clogged and bound in the wheel of time.” – B. K. S. Iyengar Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
“According to Patanjali, the process of abhyasa needs to be in place before vairagya is a viable reality, as one is an increasingly subtle developmental process arising from the initial engagement with the other. Hence abhyasa is the attentive and consistent effort to remain there and vairagya is our relationship with what arises from and within our effort to remain there.” Yogastudies.org
Ready for more?
If you’re inspired by these abhyasa and vairagya quotes and want to learn more about yoga philosophy, then check out:
Light on Life – B. K. S. Iyengar
Autobiography of a Yogi – Paramhansa Yogananda
The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice – T. K. V. Desikachar
The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy, and Practice – Georg Feuerstein