This article In brief: This blog focuses on Practice, the second of the three words – Learn, Practice, Master series. Practice is of two types: yoga-practice (yogābhyāsa) and knowledge-practice (jñānābhyāsa). The first of these is described in this post. The second will follow. I use the term Yoga-practice to distinguish it from the expression ‘practice of yoga’, which is usually known as practice of physical postures or āsana-practice. Though the word yoga is derived from the verb yuj, which has several meanings, in yoga-practice the word ‘yoga’ has a technical definition, not widely known. It is defined as “any activity undertaken to gain something that one does not have.” Thus, it encompasses many different activities, including physical postures (practice of yoga), breath control, meditation, ethical behavior (such as telling the truth, non-injury by thought, word, or deed and others), and overcoming impulsive actions driven by attachments and aversions. The goal of all these activities is to gain a purer, distraction-free mind. In short, yoga-practice is a necessary step for any seeker, whether s/he follows the path of Patañjali’s Yoga, Advaita-Vedānta, or Buddhism, or simply wants to live as a devoutly religious person. The Sanskrit word for any type of practice is abhyāsa.
Two Types of Practice (abhyāsa)
The Sanskrit word for practice is abhyāsa
Sanskrit-English dictionaries often list more than one meaning for the same word, sometimes even diametrically opposite meanings. The word abhyāsa has ten different meanings in a dictionary to which I often refer1. In English the word is usually translated as practice, which is one of the meanings listed, some others are repeat, exercise, study, and recite. I use the popular meaning practice in this post.
Yoga-practice and Knowledge-practice
(Yogābhyāsa and Jñānābhyāsa)
I’d like to introduce here what I consider to be two kinds of practice that are synergistic. They are yoga-practice (yogābhyāsa) and knowledge-practice (jñānābhyāsa). In Vedic and Vedānta traditions knowledge-practice is well-known. In this post I introduce and discuss yoga-practice. I use hyphenated words in this blog to clearly distinguish these two Sanskrit compounds2 from the commonly used expressions ‘practice of yoga’ and ‘practice of knowledge.’
Technical meaning of the word yoga in yoga-practice
Not unlike several meanings for the word abhyāsa, the dictionary I cited gives a list of more than 40 meanings for yoga. The usual meanings one sees in English translation in books describing āsana practices is yoking, while the same word means to have a mind in total focus (samādhi) in Patañjali’s Yogasūtras3. But those familiar with Bhagavadgītā understand the same word yoga as simply to mean a chapter / section / topic. Note however, in this blog I use a technical meaning of the same word yoga.
The technical meaning of yoga, albeit a rare one in common literature, is used in the well-known set of verses called Bhagavadgītā, in the fourth quarter of the following verse, where yoga is an integral part of the compound yoga-kṣema – “I take care of yoga-kṣema.” 4 https://avagamanam.com/2020/04/jewels-from-the-bhagavadgita-2/
This Sanskrit compound yoga-kṣema comprises two words. In this context, Yoga is defined as an action undertaken to gain something that is desired, but not already gained; and kṣema asan action to keep what one has already gained.5 Thus the word Yogābhyāsa in this post means “practice to achieve something that is not already attained.” The two actions of yoga and kṣema are observed in all living beings from plants to animal kingdom, driven by automatic response, instinct, or deliberate action.
Meaning of yoga relevant to Vedānta and Yogasūtra students
Those of us who have studied both the Vedānta work Bhagavadgītā and Yogasūtra of Patañjali see a very important meaning of yoga that is not widely understood. That is, the word yoga is used to really mean viyoga, the very opposite of yoga! If one takes the most common meaning of yoga, yoking, the goal of both the books is really de-yoking, known as viyoga.
Thus, a study of the totality of Yogasūtras, however, shows Patañjali intends the word yoga to mean viyoga, de-yoking. This fact is not clear from the first few sūtras in the first chapter, so often a reader becomes stuck in the notion that if only we get to samādhi, all will be fine! Patañjali’s work is built upon the foundation of Kapila’s Sāṅkhya system; and Patañjali’s central thesis, like Kapila’s, is not just temporary cessation of unhappiness, but total elimination of of it. The core of this reasoning is centered on a premise common to the three liberation philosophies — Yoga, Vedānta and Buddhism. That is, human unhappiness is due to ignorance, and removal of the cause, ignorance, eliminates unhappiness. Thus any yoga-practice really is an attempt at removal, vi-yoga, of this yoking with unhappiness. Sage Patañjali summarized Kapila’s philosophy that the cause of unhappiness is ignorance in a few aphorisms in the second chapter of Yogasūtra. He indicates the goal of yoga as one of viyoga, removal of this ignorance. He states: The association (saṃyoga) between the subject and objects is to be removed.6 Bhagavadgītā in the sixth chapter entitled Yoga of Meditation (dhyānayoga): Dissociation of this association with unhappiness is called yoga.7
Two critical components of ‘yoga-practice’
Mastery of the mind is a first and crucial step in all liberation philosophies, be it Vedānta, Buddhism or Yoga. Patañjali defines this as a definition of yoga in his second aphorism – Yoga is mastery of mind.8 But there is a second critical step in all of these philosophies as well. Vedānta and Yoga describe two necessary components of total transformation of the mind: developing steadiness of mind, citta-naiścalya, and achieving purity of mind, citta-śuddhi. Buddhism emphasises śīla, which includes developing traits such as compassion, love, forgiveness towards oneself and all living beings. Accomplishing this is not possible unless one has a steady (citta-naiścalya) and pure mind (citta-śuddhi) respectively.
First critical component – Steadiness of mind, citta-naiścalya
Steadiness of mind is the ability to focus on a task at hand without being distracted by one’s wandering mind or by external stimuli. In the religious and spiritual realms, repetition of sacred names, practice of āsana, breathing exercises and meditations develop in the seeker steadiness of mind, that is, a mind that is not distracted by any other thoughts.
Steadiness of mind is necessary for success in secular pursuits as well. Such a focused mind can even be similar to being in samādhi. Any person dedicated to what s/he is doing, any professional – artist, writer, architect, scientist – has developed this steadiness of mind without need for belief in any religion or spirituality. Even a trained assassin has his mind in samādhi in planning as well as executing his task!
But steadiness of mind alone does not guarantee that such persons can achieve liberation. It is possible that a person with extraordinary ability to focus on any pursuit may still be self-centered, hurtful to others, and deceitful. Even one who applies extraordinary time and effort to the study of spiritual works may remain neglectful or disinterested in the needs or well being of others. We might say that such a person has not been blessed by the teaching. A Sanskrit expression describes such a person to be like a ‘beast of burden carrying a load of sandal wood, unable to smell the fragrance’. Why? This is where purity of mind, citta-śuddhi, the second critical component, comes in.
Second critical component – Purity of mind, citta-śuddhi
The question is, “What is a pure mind?” Both Yoga and Vedānta describe a number of qualities defining a pure mind. To put it in a nutshell, this means one has the ability to master the habituated patterns of thinking that result in impulsive actions that only strengthen the same habits.
Why do these patterns of behavior arise in the mind? Human beings are generally full of desires or aversions, rāga or dveṣa, that result in clinging attachments to or aversions from things, beings, and situations. My teacher, Swami Dayananda, used to highlight the unreasonable nature of one’s aversions by narrating this imaginary conversation:
A young lad says, “Swamiji, I hate bananas!”
Swamiji asks, “What has banana done to you to hate it?”
One can replace bananas with brussel sprouts or okra or anything that one hates, to see that we all have inexplicable and perhaps habituated aversions! Gaining a handle on these drivers of actions is accomplished by practice of detachment, virāga or vairāgya.
Most of us spiritual seekers need to achieve a great degree of mental steadiness as well as mental purity. Thus, both these pursuits fall under the technical definition of yoga in the expression yogābhyāsa, yoga-practice. While modern life for most of us has made us develop a good degree of mental steadiness and focus, there is nothing in secular literature that stresses detachment, virāga/vairāgya. For this we need guidance from religious or spiritual books. They focus on both critical needs for the mind.
Purity of mind in Yogasūtras: For students of yoga, the first goal of steadiness of mind can be achieved by regular āsana-practice for a long time. I have seen that many of those who stick with āsana practice develop an interest in Patañjali’s work. Thus they try breathing practices, prāṇāyāma, and do some type of meditation. Āsana and prāṇāyāma comprise only the third and fourth limbs of the eight limbs, aṣṭāṇga, 8 while ethical conduct, yama, and personal observances, niyama, are the first and second limbs. Patanjali defines yama as: non-injury, truth, non-stealing, scriptural study, not accepting favors, and not holding on to things.9 He defines niyama as: cleanliness, contentment, performance of austeries, study of scriptures, keeping the Lord in focus.10 According to Patañjali, mastery of mind (nirodha) can be achieved only by having purity of mind as well: Mastery of mind is achieved by practice (abhyāsa) and detachment (vairāgya).11 Purity of mind is definitely achievable, though it needs years of dedicated practice of both āsana etc;, practices and detachment to loosen the stranglehold of our encrusted patterns of impulsive behavior.
Purity of mind in Vedānta: The thirteenth chapter of the Bhagavadgītā contains a set of five verses elaborating the qualities that must be cultivated in order to gain the knowledge that is the primary teaching. This long list comprises more than 20 qualities one has to possess to be the right receptacle of the knowledge of the Upaniṣads, as described in the Gītā. A review of this list shows it to be a superset of yama and niyama defined by Patañjali. In addition it also defines dispassion and explains how to develop it. The traits to be developed by a seeker of liberation are: Absence of pride and vanity; non-injury; forgiveness; alignment of thought, word, and deed; service to the teacher; cleanliness; steadiness; self-control; dispassion towards sense objects; absence of ego; seeing the downsides of birth, death, old age, disease and unhappiness; non-attachment towards progeny, spouse, house etc.; being even-minded due to gain of desired or not desired things; unwavering devotion to Me with total focus (on essential identity of the core of your and my Being); resorting to a place free from distractions; lack of desire towards throngs of people; being steadfast in gaining self-knowledge and seeing the truth of oneself are the means of gaining knowledge.12
Purity of mind in Buddhism: Buddhist practitioners can see that most of the śīlas (Pāli, sīla)13, applicable to both lay-practitioners and monks, are included in these five verses in what is ostensibly considered to be a ‘Hindu theistic text’
Developing dispassion, vairāgya: the problem is the mind
Graduation from being impulsive to being deliberate in thought, word, and deed is the result of detachment. The Sanskrit word for detachment is vairāgya (synonyms: virāga in advaita-vedānta and vaśīkāra in Patañjali’s Yogasūtra). Both Yoga and Vedānta texts have clear definitions of what is meant by the word detachment. This detachment is not what one achieves by a blind giving up of objects or friends and those dear. Real detachment is born of a mature understanding of the limitations of any worldly accomplishments and of not being desirous of heaven after death. Patañjali defines detachment: Detachment is total lack of craving for sense objects perceived here or heard from scriptures.14 An introductory Vedānta text, Tattvabodha defines detachment in a similar manner:What is detachment, virāga? Absence of desire for enjoyment of pleasures here or in heaven.15
Simply defining detachment does not help the seeker! Nor does it mean that one should give up everything and become a monk, thinking that such a lifestyle alone is real detachment. Unlike āsana or prāṇāyāma practices, there are no guidebooks or teachers available to tell you how to practice detachment. Our cravings for things of the world do pose serious problems in overcoming them. When the mind, due to habit, drags one towards objects of pleasure, one has to practice to counter those thoughts. This practice is to be done by the individual based on an analysis of his or her own life-experiences
A technique for this reflection is called pratipakṣabhāvanā, a kind of intentional cognitive therapy, by which one actively chooses to focus on the downside of letting the habituated mind drag one towards objects of pleasure with resultant actions only strengthening the habit. This is quite different from a ‘sour-grapes’ attitude born of incompetence or failure-based giving up. Only an intelligent examination of life’s accomplishments and experiences results in real detachment. This is the first step in seeking the means for liberation according to Muṇdakopaniṣad: ‘Having examined all experiences gained by actions, the seeker of Truth gains detachment.’16
This rather cryptic Upaniṣadic statement appears to be elaborated by Patañjali in the second chapter of Yogasūtra on practice called sādhanapāda. He describes how to do the reflection called pratipakṣabhāvana in his very long aphorism: ‘Inflicting harm, etc., to others can be done either by oneself, or at the behest of, or persuaded by another person. These (actions) are backed by greed, anger and delusion. Such actions may be of mild, moderate, or severe intensity. These actions result only in sorrow, thus keeping one ignorant.’ 17
In Vedānta, development of detachment is the second of four qualifications for a student. They are: (1) ability to discriminate between what is ephemeral and permanent, viveka; (2) detachment, vairāgya; (3) six-fold wealth of control of sense organs etc., śamādi- ṣatkasampatti; and (4) desire for liberation, mumukṣutvam.
The second qualification, detachment, vairāgya, is of such importance that an 8th century master of advaita-vedānta, Śaṅkarācārya, felt the need to create a set of 31 verses describing how to gain a degree of detachment from the world of objects and people. This work is called Mohamudgara, Remover of Delusion. Another name of these verses is Bhajagovindam, Serve the Lord Govinda, the refrain for the verses. This text provides ample ways to reflect on the facts of life in order to increase one’s level of detachment. Here are two typical verses: ‘Water on a lotus leaf is quite tremulous; life is just as unsteady. Know the world to be possessed by pride, disease and sorrow.Be not conceited by youth, wealth, or retinue: time can take them away in a minute. The wealthy are afraid of even their progeny. This is the way it is for all (of us).’18, 19
How can one gain steadiness in mastery of the mind by Yogābhāsa?
Sage Patañjali describes how one can gain steadiness in pursuit of nirodha, complete mastery of one’s mental modes. He calls this steadiness dṛḍhabhūmi, a termusually translated as “firm ground” saying: ‘For steadiness in that (abhyāsa and vairāgya) is (called) effort.20It (control of mental modes, nirodha) becomes steady by pursuing for a long time, uninterrupted, with dedication and reverence.21
The word yoga in yogābhyāsa is used in a sense not familiar to many. I use this to mean “that which allows one to gain what one does not have.” Yogābhyāsa for a seeker of liberation includes both prescribed practices in the sacred books / paths one follows and the practice of detachment. This process is elaborated in the Yogasūtras of Patañjali, in Bhagavadgītā, and in Buddhist scriptures. Whether one’s chosen path is Yoga, Vedānta, Buddhistic practices such as Zen or Mindfulness, or dedicated devotion of any religious persuasion, yoga-practice, yogābyāsa is a necessary first step.
An equally important second step is the repeated study of sacred books of one’s chosen path, which I call jñānābhyāsa, knowledge-practice. While yogābhyāsa helps the seeker move from being impulsive to being deliberate in thought, word and deed, knowledge-practice transforms the person to be spontaneous in all actions, though the two extremes of impulsiveness and spontaneity may look similar. Another more popular way to understand the role of knowledge-practice, jñānābhyāsa, is to make the seeker own up / realize / experience the goal of teaching. Knowledge-practice forms the subject matter for a subsequent post.
1 The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Prin. Vaman Shivaram Apte, Rinsen Book Company, Kyoto, 1966, p. 194
2 in Sanskrit many individual words can be combined to form compounds called samāsa-s. There is more than one way to resolve such compounds yielding very different meanings, the best meaning is determined by how such compounds are formed. Thus the common ones such as practice of yoga, practice of knowledge comprise one of the ways of resolving these two compounds yogābhyāsa and jñānābhyāsa respectively. But I am using a different way of forming the same compounds and a resolution that needs to be translated as hyphenated words.
3 In Sanskrit all words are derived from a set of about 2,200 verbs. Yoga is derived from the verb yuj. One meaning of the verb is to yoke, to connect, to join. Vyāsa, the first commentator to the Yogasūtras, defines the word yoga in this sutra to mean samādhi, based on the second meaning of the same verb yuj given earlier—to be in samādhi: युज समाधौ (माधवीया धातुवृत्तिः पृ. ४२६) yuja samādau, Mādhavīyā dhātuvṛttiḥ, p.426, Prācyabhārati, Series 1, 1964
4 अनन्याश्चिन्तयन्तोमामं ये जना: पर्युपासते ।
तेषां नित्याभियुक्तानां योगक्षेमं वहाम्यहम् ॥(भगवद्गीता ९-२२)
Ananyāścintayanto mām ye janāh paryupāsare
Teshām nityābhiyuktānām Yogakṣemaṃ vahāmyaham. (Bhagavadgītā 9-22)
The fourth quarter of the verse is in bold, the meaning is cited in the text
5 These are technical meanings found in Sanskrit-Sanskrit dictionaries, which are more
like encyclopedias. This definition is based on such a 19th century six-volume
dictionary. अनागतानयनागतरक्षणे योगक्षेमम् | (शब्दकल्पद्रुमः) Gaining what is not gained and
protecting what is gained is yogakṣema. (Śabdakalpadruma)
Also, in Śaṇkara’s commentary to this verse, he states: योगः – अप्राप्तस्य प्रापणम् | क्षेमः –
तद्रक्षणम् | Yogaḥ – Aprāptasa prāpṇam, Kṣemaḥ – Tadrakṣaṇam. (Ānandāśrama
Pub. # 34, Śrīmadbhagavadgītā, 1936, p.391, This book is in Devanāgarī script only)
Meaning: Yoga gets what is not gained, Kṣema protects what is gained.
6 दृग्दृश्ययोस्संयोगो हेयहेतु:।(योगयूत्रम् २-१७)
Drgdrśyayossamyogo heya hetuh. (Yogasūtra 2-17)
7 तं विद्याद्दुःखसंयोगवियोगं योगसंज्ञिदतम् | स निश्चयेन योक्तव्य: योगोनिर्विण्ण चेतसा॥(भगवद्गीता ६-२३)
Tam vidyāt duḥkhasaṃyogaviyogam yogasamjñitam. Sa niścayena yoktavyah yogo’nirvinna
cetasā. (Bhagavadgītā 6-23) ‘May you know that the removal (viyoga) of association
(saṃyoga) with unhappiness is called yoga. This yoga has to be practiced with perseverance
and an undistracted mind.’ (Bhagavadgītā 6-23)
8 योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोध:।(योगसूत्रम् १-२) Yogaścittavrttinirodhah (Yogasūtra 1-2) mastery of
mind is Yoga (Yogasūtra 1-2). Though the word nirodha is often translated as control,
I prefer the word ‘mastery’. Cittavṛtti is translated as mental modes in many books.
8 यमनियमप्राणायामप्रत्याहारधारणाध्यानसमाधयोsष्टावड़गानि | (योगसूत्रम् २-२९)
Yamaniyamaprāṇāyāmapratyāhāradhāraṇasamādhayo’ṣṭāvaṅgāni. (Yogasūtra 2-29)
Eight limbs are yama, niyama, āsana, prāṇāyāma, pratyāhārā, dhāraṇā, dhyāna and samādhi.
9 अहिंसासत्यास्तेयब्रह्मचर्यापरिग्रहा यमाः | (योगसूत्रम् २-३०)
Ahiṃsā-satyā-asteya-brahmacarya-aprigrahā yamāḥ. (Yogastra 2-30)
10 शौचसन्तोषतपस्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि नियमाः | (योगसूत्रम् २-३२)
Śauca-santoṣa-tapas-svādhyāya-īsvarapraṇidhānāni niyamāḥ. (Yogastra 2-32)
11 अभ्यासवैराग्याभ्यां तन्निरोधः | (योगसूत्रम् १-१२)
Abhyāsavairāgyābhyām tannirodhaḥ. (Yogasūtra 1-12)
12 अमानित्वमदम्भित्वमहिंसाक्षान्तिरार्जवम् |
आचार्योपासनं शौचं स्थैर्यमात्मविनिग्रहः || (भगवद्गीता १३-७)
ācāyopāsanam śaucam sthairamāmavinigrahaḥ. (Bhagavadgītā 13-7)
इन्द्रियार्थेषु वैराग्यमनहङ्कार एव च |
जन्ममृत्युजराव्याधिदुःखदोषानुदर्शनम् || (भगवद्गीता १३-८)
Indriyārtheṣu vairāgyamanahaṅāra eva ca:
janamamṛtyujarāvyādhiduḥkhadoṣānudarśanam. (Bhagavadgītā 13-8)
असक्तिरनभिष्वङः पुत्रदारगृङादिषु |
नित्यञ्च समचित्तत्वमिष्टानिष्टोपपत्तिषु || (भगवद्गीता १३-९)
nityañca samacittatvamiṣṭāniṣṭopapattiṣu. (Bhagavadgītā 13-9)
मयि चानन्ययोगेन भक्तिरव्यभिचारिणी |
विविक्तदेशसेवित्वसरतिर्जनसंसदि || (भगवद्गीता १३-१०)
Mayi cānanyayogena bhaktiravyabhicāriṇī:
viviktadeśasevitvmaratirjana saṁsadi. (Bhagavadgītā 13-10)
अध्यात्मज्ञाननित्यत्वं तत्त्वज्ञानार्थदर्शनम् |
एतज्ज्ञानमिति प्रोक्तमज्ञानं यदतोन्यथा || (भगवद्गीता १३-११)
etajñānamitiproktamajñām yadatomyathā. (Bhagavadgītā 13-11)]
13 The Shambala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, Shambala, Boston, 1991, p.197,
Also, Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volumes 1 and 2, Macmillan Publishing Company, Reprint
Edition, 1972: Buddhism, p. 417
14 दृष्टानुश्रवितविषयवितृष्णस्य वशीकारसंज्ञा वैराग्यम् | (योगसूत्रम् २-२५)
Dṛṣṭānuśravikaviṣayavitṛṣṇasya vaśīkārasamjñā vairāgyam (Yogasūtra, 1-15)]
15 विरागः कः | इहामुत्रार्थफलभोग विरागः | (तत्वबोधः ९, १०)
Virāgaḥ kaḥ? Ihasvargabhogeṣu ichhārāhityam. (Tattvabodha, 9,10)
16 परीक्ष्य लोकान् कर्मचितान्निर्वेदमायाद्ब्राह्मणः | (मुण्डकोपनिषत् १-२-१२)
Parīkṣya locān karmacitān nirvedamāyād brāhmaṇaḥ (1-2-12)
17 वितर्का हिंसादयः कृतकारिकानुमोदिता लोभक्रोधमोहपूर्वका
मृदुमध्याधिमात्रा दुःखाज्ञानान्तफला इति प्रतिपक्षभावनम् | (योगसूत्रम् २-३४)
Vitarkā himsādayaḥ kṛtakārikānumoditā lobhakrodhamohapūrvakā
mṛdumahyādhimātra duḥkhājñānānantaphalā iti pratipakṣabhāvanam (Yogasūtra, 2-34)
18 नलिनीदलगतमतिचलचपलं तद्वजीवितमतिशयचपलम्
विद्धिव्याध्यभिमानग्रस्तं लोकं शोकहतञ्च समस्तम् || (मोहमुद्गरः ४)
Viddhi vyādhyabhimānagrastam lokam śokahatam ca samastam. (Mohamudgara, 4)
19 मा कुरु धनजनयौवनगर्वं हरति निमेषात्कालस्सर्वम् |
पुत्रादपि धनभाजां भीतिः सर्वत्रैषा विहिता रीतिः || (मोहमुद्गरः १३)
Mā kuru dhanajanayauvanagarvam harati nimeṣāt kālassarvam
Putrādapi dhanabhājām bhītiḥ sarvasyaiṣā vihitā rītiḥ. (Mohamudgara, 11)
20 तत्र स्थितौ यतेनोSभ्यासः | (योगसूत्रम् २-२३)
Tatra sthitau yatno’bhyāyasaḥ. (Yogasūtra 1-13)
21 स तु दीर्घकालनैरन्तर्यसत्कारासेवितो दृढभूमिः | (योगसूत्रम् २-२४)
Sa (nirodhaḥ) tu dīrghakāla-nairantarya-satkāya-āsevito dṛḍhabhūmiḥ (Yogasūtra 1-14)
I thank Alice, Candace, Chris and Philippe
for their valuable comments and edits.