Book 1, Sutra 13: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra
“ABHYASA IS AN UNRELENTING DETERMINATION EXPRESSED IN MAXIMUM EFFORT IN ORDER TO REACH STABILITY IN A STATE FREE OF MENTAL FLUCTUATIONS.”
Patanjali further describes the first part of his two part formula (abhyasa and vairagya) here. Essentially he tells us in this sutra that, in order to reach the state free of the vrttis (mental fluctuations), we must apply ourselves without thoughts of defeat, failure or ever giving up, over whatever period of time the task requires. We must try and try again, over and over, slowly uprooting the tree of mental agitation. It is a big tree, so we must be prepared for a long and strenuous battle. Further on in his sutra, Patanjali will give us his recommended techniques, strategies and practices for this battle. But for now, he is warning us that a sustained and serious effort is required.
It is the nature of the ego to want shortcuts in life and unfortunately, it is the nature of the ego to offer those shortcuts to others. Patanjali is telling us, however, that the very idea of shortcuts prevents us from developing one of the two essential qualities that we need in order to reach the goal: unrelenting persistence of effort. To believe in shortcuts undermines our ability to maintain a prolonged struggle, our ability to weather innumerable momentary defeats and failures. Patanjali tells us that it is more important that we persist than we are successful. In fact, as he will tell us in his definition of vairagya, success is actually something we have to renounce on the yogic path but sustained effort cannot be given up until we reach the goal.
Satyananda Saraswathi says “Abhyasa means continued practice, you can not leave it at all. It becomes a part of your personality, a part of your individual nature.” He uses the word “sadhana” and connects it with abhyasa. Sadhana is the word commonly used to indicate a particular set of exercises meant for spiritual progression. So abhyasa is an executed dedication to some type of sadhana. The important difference between Patanjali’s and others’ use of abhyasa and sadhana is that it is here connected with stilling the mind. The yoga that Patanjali describes cannot be separated from stilling the mind and in this verse he tells us that we can only achieve this with repeated, prolonged effort.
In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna teaches essentially the same thing about the necessity of repeated effort. In Chapter 6, Sutra 35:
“The Blessed Lord said:
No doubt, you are right, O mighty Arjuna, that the mind is hard to control, wavering and restless, but by repeated effort and dispassion it can be done.”