Yoga Sutra I. 12
Abhyasa vairagyambhyam tannirodhah
Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness. BKS Iyengar (trans)
According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the principles of abhyasa and vairagya are the two wings of yoga sadhana (practice). Abhyasa means “effort of long duration, without interruption, preformed with devotion which creates a firm foundation” (Light on Yoga, p. 28). Vairagya is renunciation, detachment and the absence of worldly desires. Together they are the means advised by Patanjali to restrain the fluctuations of consciousness: the vrittis (fluctuations of mind) and kleshas (hinderences) and obstacles in practice. The practice of abhyasa and vairagya function as both a means and an end in yoga sadhana; in the perfection of abhyasa and vairagya the sadhaka becomes a master of him or herself.
Abhyasa can be understood as the active component of yoga sadhana, which conveys a sense of cultivation, observation of precepts and repetition comprising of the path of action (tapas), whereas vairagya is the surrendering or letting go component related to svadyaya (self study) and ishvara-pranidhana, surrender of oneself and actions to God. In his commentary on this Sutra, BKS Iyengar also draws a parallel between abhyasa and the external quest (bahiranga sadhana: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama) and vairagya and the internal quest (antaratma sadhana, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi).
Practice and renunciation are equally important and interdependent. Sutra 1.32 further elucidates the connection between abhyasa and vairagya:
1. 32 tatpratisedhartham ekatattva abhyasa
Adherence to a single-minded efforts prevents these impediments. BKS Iyengar (trans)
Through abhyasa, the practitioner cultivates, purifies and guides body, mind, and intellect in a virtuous direction and prevents the arising of impediments. In proceeding sutras, Patanjai elaborates of the ways of practicing to prevent the arising of obstacles and impediments: repeating the sacred sound of OM, cultivating friendliness compassion, joy and equanimity, maintaining the pensive state felt at the end of a soft and steady exhalation, contemplating a luminous light, contemplating on enlightened sages, recollecting the the experiences of sleep, and absorption on any desired object.
Patanjali gives all of these methods, and the eight limbs of yoga to suit the needs and temperaments of practitioners of differing capacities. When done repeatedly with focused awareness and devotion (abyasa, tapas), these practices purify mind, body and intelligence. “Only when body, mind and intelligence are fully purified is it possible to surrender totally to God, without expecting any return.” (Core of the Yoga Sutras, BKS Iyengar). Here we see the connection between vairagya and pranidhana.
“To contemplate on God, to surrender one’s self to Him, is to bring everything face to face with God. Pranidhana is the surrender of everything: one’s ego, all good and virtuous actions, pains and pleasures, joys and sorrows, elations and miseries to the Universal Soul. Through surrender the aspirant’s ego is effaced, and the grace of the Lord pours down upon him like torrential rain.” BKS Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras, p. 78
Abyasa and vairagya are like the Ha and Tha of Hatha yoga, fully complementary and interdependent. Practiced, experienced and realized, they are both a means and a culmination of yoga Sadhana.