Alternating periods of intense activity and rest is an important part of life, so it’s no surprise that this principle serves as the foundation of yoga itself. Sometimes these periods are personified as the divine couple, the feminine Shakti and the masculine Shiva; other times, they’re characterized as the categories abhyasa (pronounced ah-bee-YAH-sah), typically translated as “constant exercise,” and vairagya (vai-RAHG-yah), or “dispassion.”
Abhyasa and vairagya are often compared to the wings of a bird, and every yoga practice must include equal measures of these two elements to keep it aloft: the persistent effort to realize the goal, which is always self-understanding, and a corresponding surrender of worldly attachments that stand in the way. But these definitions tell only half the story.
The word abhyasa is rooted in as, meaning “to sit.” But abhyasa isn’t your garden-variety sitting. Rather, abhyasa implies action without interruptionaction that’s not easily distracted, discouraged, or bored. Abhyasa builds on itself, just as a ball rolling downhill picks up momentum; the more we practice, the more we want to practice, and the faster we reach our destination.
As also means “to be present.” This reminds us that for our practice to be effective, we must always be intensely present to what we’re doing. Eventually, such resolute, vigilant enterprise on the yoga mat becomes part and parcel of everything we do in daily life.
Vairagya is rooted in raga, which means both “coloring” and “passion.” But vairagya means “growing pale.” One 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. And because they come and go willy-nilly, we’re always at their mercy and suffer accordingly.
Through vairagya, we “bleach” our consciousness of these colorings. This isn’t to say we have to abandon our possessions, friends, or beliefs; we just have to recognize their transitory nature and be ready to surrender them at the appropriate time. Our consciousness becomes like a “transparent jewel” (Yoga Sutra I.41) that allows the light of our authentic Self, the atman, to shine through brilliantly without distortion. Then we know ourselves as we truly are, at once eternal and eternally blissful.
Richard Rosen, who teaches in Oakland and Berkeley, California, has been writing for Yoga Journal since the 1970s.