Abhyasa and vairagya
Two principles, abhyasa and vairagya, lie at the heart of yoga. Abhyasa means ‘practice’. It refers to the consistent effort of putting one foot in front of the other and a commitment to making choices that take us incrementally further on our spiritual journey.
In this way abhyasa is different from sadhana, which is the Sanskrit name given to specific practices or techniques.
Abhyasa, on the other hand, can be understood as unwavering or uninterrupted commitment to practice. It is effort; willpower. As its strength and momentum grow the progression of the yoga practice increases its pace, just as a snowball would as it rolled downhill.
Vairagya or ‘non attachment’ speaks to our willingness to let go of all of our attachments – to self identity, fancy yoga poses, a particular style of practice – recognising that these things direct our awareness to things that are external to ourselves. The real work happens on the inside.
Vairagya literally means, ‘growing pale’. One way of interpreting this is this: as we go about our day our experience is typically coloured by the lens through which we view things – we are attached to some events or people, we dislike others, we measure what people say against the image we have of them in our heads – by committing to vairagya we ‘bleach’ our mind and in doing so cultivate the ability to reflect our experience neutrally, without the bias of interpretation or expectation. Through vairagya we accept and let go.
So, it is through the cultivation of abhyasa and vairagya that we seek to achieve a state of ‘yoga’; arriving at a place where the fluctuations of the mind might quieten. Each must be cultivated in proportion to the other in order for the practice of yoga to stay aloft. Thus, abhyasa and vairagya have been compared to the wings of a bird.
We experience the pull of the two as a dance, like the dance of the sun (abhyasa) and the moon (vairagya), the dance of effort and stillness, of pushing and yielding.
How do we draw these two poles closer together?
In the context of a yoga asana practice we do this by first giving our full effort to the alignment of a pose, then by letting go a little bit. Relax your portals – eyes, ears, mouth, nose – and, at the end of each exhalation, where willpower and letting go meet, pause. Experience how you can release from within by relinquishing force as you grow your awareness.
Ask yourself, ‘am I feeding my ego or feeding my soul?’.