*This is an excerpt from Align and Refine: The Journey of Yoga and Meditation by Cindy Lusk, PhD. She has written the book she wishes she had as a student of yoga nearly 40 years ago.
Align and Refine: The Journey of Yoga and Meditation describes the journey of yoga and meditation from the perspective of a modern-day yogi, emphasizing traditional teachings from Classical Yoga and Tantra in a way that is accessible and applicable. It considers the human condition, the impulse for something more, and how yoga and meditation allow the refinement of one’s individuality, alignment with the highest self within, and the emergence and embodiment of yogic qualities for the benefit of oneself, society, and the world at large.
Many step onto the path of yoga seeking something, be it stretching, calming the nervous system, or a more fulfilling life. Most people know there is more to yoga than “stretching in Sanskrit,” but the contradictory messages in the modern yoga scene can be very confusing. Drawing on decades of practice and study, Align and Refine synthesizes many teachings in a systematic and accessible way, and includes opportunities to reflect on and explore the teachings, making them applicable to everyday life.
The following excerpt addresses Abhyāsa and Vairāgya: Practice and Dispassion
At the beginning of the Yoga Sūtra, Patañjali gives his definition of yoga: “Yoga is the calming of the mind” (YS 1.2). Then, of course, the question is: How do you do this? Patañjali presents a two-fold path: abhyāsa, or “practice,” and vairāgya, or “dispassion.” The core means to yoga is balancing regular practice with dispassion.
YS 1.12 abhyāsa-vairāgyābhyāṃ tan-nirodhaḥ
[The mind] is restrained through practice and dispassion.
Remember that word order in this sūtra text is important, and here abhyāsa is listed first. Practice is fundamental to learning anything, be it yoga and meditation, the arts, parenting, or running a business. You have to actually do something, and doing it repeatedly is one way to think of practice. If you want to be a writer, you must write. And more broadly speaking, if you want to be a good parent, you must practice parenting skills, and if you want to improve a business, you must explore and implement ways to do that.
So if you want to experience the benefits of yoga, you have to do yoga. It seems obvious in some ways, yet how often does one desire the benefits of some practice, yet fail to do anything about it? You have to physically put yourself on the mat and/or meditation cushion.
In my own experience, I’ve seen the power of practice in my yoga practice, for example with arm balances. When I first saw some of the arm-balance postures in the advanced series I was learning, my initial inclination was to think, “No way!” When I first started practicing arm balances, I fell out of them again and again. Many of them seemed hopeless, yet I continued to practice. Some of them took months of practice to even begin to get, yet by persevering, I developed the necessary strength and flexibility. Even those postures I never quite “perfected” outwardly, benefitted me on my path.
YS 1.14 sa tu dīrgha-kāla-nairantarya-satkāra-āsevito dṛḍha-bhūmiḥ
This [practice] is firmly established when it is cultivated for a long time, uninterruptedly, properly, and with reverence.
In YS 1.14, Patañjali specifically explains what constitutes a well-established practice, listing three components. First, dīrgha-kāla, meaning “continued for a long time.” Second, nairantarya, meaning “without interruption” or “continuous.” In other words, the first two qualities of a well-established practice are doing it for a long time and doing it uninterruptedly or regularly.
The third quality is: satkāra-āsevitaḥ, which has various translations, including “right fashion, carefully attended to, seriously and respectfully, and with reverent devotion.” This third aspect of abhyāsa has different shades of meaning. There is a sense of practicing properly, in the correct way, and carefully. Also, there is a sense of a respectful approach to the practice, even reverence or devotion. This sūtra says that practice is established when done for a long time, without interruptions, and in the proper fashion—even reverently.
After considering these aspects of abhyāsa, Patañjali turns to vairāgya, the second element in YS 1.12 as the way toward nirodha, calming of the mind. Vairāgya is often translated as “dispassion,” but also as “nonattachment.”
One element of vairāgya is nonattachment toward the results of practice, especially the immediate results. Consider any physical practice, or something artistic like music. Any given practice session may be frustrating or tedious; nonetheless, you continue showing up to practice. This is abhyāsa. Then, vairāgya is about letting go of any judgment around how well you did or any attachment to a specific result.
One gift of the early days of my intense yoga āsana practice was learning the discipline of regular practice without judging the results. The practice had a set sequence of postures, and inevitably some poses were easier and some more challenging—or even impossible for some people.
Yet, every day, regardless of how I felt, I got on the mat and went through the sequence of poses. Some days were more “successful,” if one were looking at the outer form of the pose. On some days, I had no problem whipping my foot behind my head and even moving into different positions from there. And other days, it just wouldn’t go. And when I pushed too much, I could injure myself. So slowly, I learned the vairāgya part of the equation: the necessity and benefit of nonattachment.
Likewise with meditation practice. Actually sitting to meditate is abhyāsa/practice. Yet we don’t judge the specifics of what happens during our practice. Simply do the practice as instructed, allowing it to unfold however it does. Cultivating this attitude of nonattachment is one way to think about vairāgya.
From a broader perspective, vairāgya can be thought of as all that needs released in order to better walk the path of yoga. Remember that the Yoga Sūtra is primarily a text that teaches renunciation. It teaches withdrawal from the world, in part because that helps us move away from desire, which is fundamental in this renunciate text. Some are called to join an ashram, retire to a cave, or become a wandering sādhu (holy person). Then those social circumstances support a total obliteration of all desire. So vairāgya/dispassion in the context of Classical Yoga involves completely renouncing all worldly desire, including family, possessions, and so on.
From a Tantric householder perspective, it is not necessary to obliterate all desire. Instead, we consider how to bring desires, intention/saṃkalpa, and actions in line with the highest, most auspicious desires. We slowly refine our lives by releasing whatever does not align us with the Highest. This is another way to think of vairāgya.
In a greater scope of our lives as a whole, or in some particular domain of our lives, the teaching of abhyāsa and vairāgya can be even further simplified to yes and no. What do you say “yes” to in life, and to what do you say “no?” What needs to be cultivated and manifested, and what needs to be released or dissolved?
On my journey of yoga, much of this happened quite naturally. After I started practicing yoga āsana, I found I didn’t want to go out and party with my friends because I wanted to attend a yoga class early the next morning. Gradually, some of my partying friends began to fade away. As I shifted additional elements of my life, I eventually found myself in a very different lifestyle that better supported my yoga practice.
This is a process many of us go through on the spiritual path: through practice, we get a hit of awareness or an experience of the benefits of the practice, and we naturally start letting go of activities, objects, and even people that hinder us on the path. And often we find ourselves simply not caring about things that previously seemed so important due to having tasted a greater fulfillment, and our whole perspective starts changing. So one way to think of embodying abhyāsa and vairāgya is making choices that are beneficial for the path of yoga, which eventually supports life as a whole.
Sometimes the greatest effort is simply starting to practice—just getting on the mat or the cushion, doing what is necessary to create the time and space for practice. This requires effort, abhyāsa, as well as some letting go of whatever is getting in the way, vairāgya. Yoga is always a combination of things, and a lot of the success of yoga depends on finding the balance, or some combination of opposing actions, without rigidly resorting to any single way. So one way this teaching can be simplified is to balance effort and surrender.
In many enterprises, it is quite easy to over-effort, if not balanced in some way. For myself, I practiced yoga āsana for many years in a very effortful and dogmatic way. This led to multiple injuries, which I deal with to this day. On the other hand, in recent years, I’ve found myself becoming a little lackadaisical about my āsana practice. I’m surrendering too easily into lassitude and need to put a little more energy into my āsana practice.
Consider how this teaching on abhyāsa and vairāgya can be applied to the practice of svādhyāya: study of the teachings. We have to arrange our lives to make time for study, perhaps letting go of some activities to make that happen. Then it is necessary to apply some effort toward svādhyāya, take up the practice of contemplation/bhāvanā, and actually engage with the materials.
What does it require for you to do this? Personally, I work best with some structure: for example, a course of study with a teacher or a study group with other students. I also find some commitment and accountability important. Then, to do the studies, I have to let go of some other activity to make the time. For me, this means spending less time on things that don’t support my path, such as social media.
As with my āsana practice, I’ve had to repeatedly let go of my perfectionism, my desire to know everything perfectly as I study the yogic teachings. Because I am aware of the process of refinement of understanding, I learn what I can at a given time and release the expectation that my current understanding must be perfect. I know some confusion may be part of the process, and I allow myself to imbibe the teachings in a way that is more open and patient.
Reflect and explore
Consider a specific domain in life you want to shift or cultivate, be it some artistic endeavor, some social or physical skill, a practice, etc.
>> How do the concepts of abhyāsa and vairāgya apply?
>> Do you tend to favor abhyāsa or vairāgya, or are you pretty balanced? If you favor one, how is that working?
Answer the above questions with regard to your spiritual practice.
What has the practice of yoga postures and/or meditation (or any practice) taught you about the process of abhyāsa and vairāgya?
Consider writing down your definition of the three components of an established practice (YS 1.14).
>> How are you doing with regard to each?
>> How do you think about that third component of practicing properly and with devotion?
Consider abhyāsa and vairāgya as making the choices that take one farther down the path of yoga. Think of abhyāsa as what you need to do to say “yes” to your practice, and think of vairāgya as what you need to let go of or say “no” to. Make two columns labeled “yes” and “no” on a piece of paper. Then list specific actions to take under each.
What parts of your life have more readily faded away as you’ve continued on the journey of yoga? What other things do you still need to let go of?