Abhyasa & Vairagya

The Essential Aspects of Spiritual Life

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali states that abhyasa and vairagya (perseverance and detachment) represent the two essential aspects of spiritual life, working together like the wings of a bird.

Abhyasa—Perseverance

Abhyasa refers to perseverant spiritual practice. The Shiva Samhita (4:9) affirms: “Through practice comes perfection; through practice one will attain liberation.”

In the Yoga Sutras (1:13), Patanjali defines abhyasa in the following way: “Abhyasa is the effort toward gaining stability in that state of cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” In sutra 1:14, he further elaborates: “But this practice is firmly grounded only after it has been cultivated properly and for a long time uninterruptedly.”

In his teachings, Ramana Maharshi also stressed that “no one succeeds without effort. Those who succeed owe their success to perseverance.”

It is important to understand that abhyasa is not just any kind of effort (not even, for example, the effort of practicing Hatha Yoga in a physical way), but a very specific kind—the effort toward gaining stability in the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. Therefore, this practice is essentially oriented in the same direction as vairagya (detachment). Thus, any particular attitude becomes a spiritual practice if we stabilize ourselves in the Stillness of our real being for a long period of time.

Constant repetition of a yogic practice reaches the unconscious and starts a quiet, deep transformation there, which Patanjali called nirodha parinama (the transformation of dissolution). Once it becomes so deeply connected to the unconscious, meditation and any other practice becomes effortless and natural.

Vairagya—Detachment 

Vairagya refers to the detachment from worldly things, a freedom from worldly desires, or dispassion. In the Yoga Sutras (1:15), Patanjali defines it in this way: “Vairagya is the certainty of mastery of the yogin who is without thirst for visible and revealed (or invisible) things.”

Since all desires produce a kind of bondage, they must all ultimately be released. Each desire is intrinsically linked to the ego, and thus is a veil between our limited being and the Infinite. The ultimate form of vairagya is, as Patanjali mentions, simply a consequence of the “vision of the Self,” in which everything else is revealed as ephemeral.

Vairagya is usually defined as renunciation, self-abandonment, relinquishment, or self-control. It is generally interpreted as the abandonment of certain material things or of the world itself. But in reality, vairagya is not an abandonment of things. It is an abandonment of the false values, mental filters, and dogmas that create an incorrect interpretation of things and generate an erroneous relationship with the world and everything around us. Mental projections and false perceptions are the reason for our attachments and aversions, our likes and dislikes.

Therefore, the main challenge in vairagya lies in the difficulty of discriminating between false values and true values in life.

In the transformation brought by yoga (whose essential ingredients are abhyasa and vairagya), a gradual blossoming of an insight into the nature of reality occurs. This is not a forceful suppression of our perceived values or a crushing of the desire for things that are perceived to bring our personality real satisfaction. When we rise to a higher degree of reality, we do not reject the lower degree of reality. Rather, we overcome it and integrate it into a wider perspective.

Vairagya can be more accurately described as “the spirit of renunciation.” Spiritual practice becomes ineffective and does not produce the expected transformations on account of the absence of this essential, requisite spirit. Generosity, compassion, and love that is not limited and constricted by selfish desires all spring from vairagya.