Practice & Detachment

The beauty of the Yoga Sutras is the gradual unveiling of knowledge. There is an eloquent order to this philosophical work that is thrilling even when it is esoteric and mysterious. The sutras unfold slowly, telling us just what we need to know when we need to know it. In this way, our minds are ready to understand and accept what comes next based on what came before. It is brilliant both in its simplicity – there are only 196 sutras – and its complexity – every word is precise and perfect.

At the outset, we learned that the goal of yoga is to control the activities of the field of the mind as the means to experience our true nature. But, up until this point, there has been no explanation of how to do this. In sutras 12 through 16 of the Samadhi Pada, Patanjali offers a methodology starting with abhyasa-vairagyabhyam tan-nirodhah: the vrittis (thought channels) are controlled by practice (abhyasa) and detachment (vairagya). And then Patanjali elaborates on both.

Abhyasa is defined as practice that is steadfast and effortful. It is not just practice, but the practice of returning to the practice. It is the endeavor to change the direction of our attention, because unless we actively shift our habits, our minds will continue to move in old patterns. We must transform our minds in order to transcend prakriti and move toward the goal of yoga, the realization of purusha.

Abhyasa becomes firmly established and rooted when it is cultivated and pursued without interruption, over a long period of time, with devotion and appropriate qualities. The qualities are said to be tapasbrahmacharyashraddha, and vidya. While these qualities are not stated directly in the Yoga Sutras, they are expounded upon in the Upanishads, which form the knowledge base upon on which the sutras were built. There is an underlying assumption that those learning at the time of Patanjali would be aware of these concepts.

Tapas is putting up with discomfort. Because the mind is always seeking pleasure, it can be uncomfortable to break old familiar patterns and experience the discomfort in doing so. But, in order to gain control over the mind, it must be done. There is no debate about this. Brahmacharya is celibacy. The mind should not be disturbed by thoughts of sex. This is the lakshanam, the precise technical definition, of brahmacharya even though the modern yoga world has redefined brahmacharya in order to fit it into a non-celibate lifestyle. The term, as it was used at the time of Patanjali, means celibacy. There is no debate about this either. And while this may not be possible for many yoga practitioners today or even at Patanjali’s time, celibacy does play a role in accomplishing internal change during times of heavy self-study and personal reflection.

Shraddha is conviction. This is often translated as faith, but faith implies a belief that is not based on proof. In the context of the ancients, shraddha is the firm belief based on direct personal experience. Vidya is spiritual truth, knowledge of purusha. And, according to the Upanishads, vidya is the most important quality. Without it, there is nothing.

Vairagya is a state of mind when desire is gone. It is translated variously as dispassion, non-attachment, absence of attachment, and detachment. Vairagya happens in stages, over time, through effortful abhyasa. Patanjali distinguishes between attachments that are seen and those that are described in scripture. Drishta, that which is seen, are worldly endeavors like food, sex, and power. Anushravika, that which is described in scripture, is what is promised in the heavens or the celestial realm.

The real work of vairagya is the withdrawal of the senses completely from external objects and any traces of attachment that remain in the mind. It is an unchanging state of utter desirelessness, utter freedom, where the mind is completely under control. It is the personal and internal experience of supreme mastery. Nothing, no person or object, will create any activities that are uncontrolled in the field of the mind.

Then, Patanjali says that there is an even higher state of vairagya called para vairagya. It is a superior state of detachment. It is typical in ancient Indian scripture for classifications to come in two categories, one lower and one higher. Without attaining or reaching a state of detachment it is not possible to reach para vairagya. This higher state of detachment comes through the spiritual knowledge of the true Self, purusha, and indifference to the gunas, the qualities that make up material consciousness in prakriti. This is ultimate knowledge – vairagya – really just another word for yoga.