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Abhyasa/Vairagya and how they block the patterns of consciousness

Sage Patanjali, in his book Patanjali Yog Sutra, has given two methods to overcome the Vrittis (patterns of consciousness) developed in the Chitta (consciousness).

They are:



To understand how Abhyasa helps break through the patterns, we should have a general idea of how they are developed. Although Sage Patanjali suggested that the formation of these patterns runs deeper than the understanding of life, modern neuroscience has been able to deduce how we form habits in our daily life. These habits later become our behavior patterns and determine our way of living.

Vritti and its relation to modern neuroscience

Neuroscience has been able to predict when and how the brain fires its neurons to execute a specific task.

Our daily lives include hundreds of routine habits. Brushing our teeth, driving to work, or putting away the dishes are just a few tasks our brains have automated to the point that we hardly need to think about them. Although we may think of each of these routines as a single task, they are usually made of many smaller actions, such as picking up our toothbrush, squeezing toothpaste onto it, and then lifting the brush to our mouth.

This process of grouping behaviors into a single routine is known as "chunking." Still, little is known about how the brain does it. MIT neuroscientists have now found that specific neurons in the brain are responsible for marking the beginning and end of these chunked units of behavior. These neurons, located in a brain region highly involved in habit formation, fire at the outset of a learned routine, go quiet while it's carried out, then fire again once the routine has ended. "This task-bracketing appears to be important for initiating a routine and notifying the brain once it is completed," says Ann Graybiel. Mme Graybiel is an Institute Professor at MIT, a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the study's senior author.

Even a small task such as brushing our teeth combines many steps. That fact gives an idea of how complex the patterns of behavior must be or how our lack of awareness of these steps leads us to the formation of behavioral patterns repeated with the same result.

This is where Abhyasa comes in.


Tatra sthitau yatno’bhyasah. (P.Y.S 1.13)

Abhyasa means to be perfectly fixed in the spiritual effort (Sadhana). The effort here involves the practice of chitta vritti nirodhah (blocking the patterns of consciousness). It may include meditation, karma yoga, bhakti, introspection, and other techniques.

Remember that just practicing a thing for some time is not Abhyasa. Abhyasa means continued practice; you cannot leave it at all. It becomes a part of your personality and your individual nature. To emphasize this, the rishi has used the word Sthitau, which means being firmly fixed or established.

There is a critical point concerning Abhyasa which must be understood. When Abhyasa becomes natural, firmly rooted, and complete, it leads to samadhi (a state where all patterns of consciousness are blocked and new ones are not created). So, every student must pay utmost attention to a regular and continued practice which, when perfected, leads to the complete blocking of the Vrittis.

Regular and repeated practice of the same thing gives better awareness of the smaller tasks involved, and the practitioner can see the emerging patterns over time.

Vairagya (Renunciation)

The second method to overcome the patterns of consciousness is by practicing Vairagya. It is not simply a second method, but rather Abhyasa and Vairagya going together as two sides of the same sword.

Vairagya teaches the practitioner to cut himself from his senses. It is an essential tool for a person on a spiritual journey because when insights enter in contact with Prakriti (the root of creation), they keep creating new objects for concentration. That process creates more divisions in our awareness.

A perfect balance between Abhyasa and Vairagya is necessary for a person. Practicing Vairagya allows for a culturing process and refinement of our bodies and minds. Our mind becomes quiet but sharp. Because we are focussing so intensely on asana – pressing the big toe, turning the thigh out, etc.- we do not have time to wonder about the future or ponder what happened in the past. We are entirely absorbed by whether our legs are extending in Tadasana, our shoulders lifted in Sirsasana. This all-absorbing aspect of yoga draws our energy inward and leads us to Vairagya. This aspect quiets our minds, and we inevitably feel better than before we started.

Vairagya (renunciation) doesn't mean we disengage from the world around us. On the contrary, it allows us to perceive situations clearly for what they are and to make choices or take action based on correct knowledge due to our sharpened sense of perception.

Abhyasa and Vairagya as one

For a person not willing to leave behind everything and live their lives as an ascetic, Abhyasa and Vairagya are the tools that help perform and excel at any task.

Abhyasa means doing whatever is necessary to execute a morally and socially justified task. Vairagya is about renouncing anything that keeps the person from doing these moral tasks. Although it has become hard in today's world to know what is morally and socially justified, for those practicing yoga, it is always simple, plain, and without any interpretation.

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