Abhyasa is discussed several times in the first chapter of the Yoga Sutras. We’ll start with I.12:
Nirodha (cessation) of vrrti (various forms of the mind-field) occurs by abhyasa (practice) and vairagya (non-attachment).
More simply put, control of the operations of the mind comes from practice and non-attachment.
Let’s break this down further. I asked the internet what the official definition of practice and it gave me these:
1. to do something repeatedly to improve
2. to do something as a custom or habit
Abhyasa is frequently defined as constant practice, but also means a spiritual practice that is constant and practiced over a long period of time. Now this is a beautiful concept. Further from our western view of a practice (repeating to improve) is this idea built into the word that it’s not just current; it is both constant and long standing commitment to this spiritual practice. It is not just study or going to class or meditating (no matter how frequent); it is an endeavor, and not one to be taken lightly; to be practiced constantly and for a long time. Remember: the idea of practice as a devoted endeavor doesn’t have to stop at spirituality.
Vairagya is non-attachment or non-reaction. Again, this guy has a lot of meanings. What is it that we cannot be attached to? Our desires, for one. Our possessions. Our expectations. We must not renounce action itself, but practice non-attachment to the fruits of our actions. These are some big ideas. But what happens when you have expectations? They’re either met or you’re let down. And desire, there’s a painful one. Humans spend incredible amounts of time wanting; lusting, hungering, wishing…we’ve all been here. What good does it do you? Worrying and desperately trying. Not only is it a waste of time but it almost always leaves us feeling unfulfilled and full of stress. You know when your yoga teacher tells you to let go of what doesn’t serve you? This is it. Non-attachment: renunciation of everything that doesn’t serve you. Keep an even keel, work for the sake of seva (service) and not a paycheck, let go of wanting, let go of materialism, and live in the present (no expectations, just be where you are and continue to ride the rollercoaster).
Vrrti is a complex concept with tons of definitions. Early in the Sutras, yoga is described as “chitta vrtti nirodhah”, or suppression (nirodhah) of the fluctuations (vrtti) of consciousness (chitta). Chitta vritti is often referred to by yoga teachers as the mental chatter that distracts you from being present. The word vrtti comes from vrt meaning to revolve or turn. (Thanks to Light on Yoga for the translative help in this last paragraph)
Coming all back together, here’s the meaning of this Sutra (2.12) as told by our beloved Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita [side note: who’s Krishna!? Vishnu, the god of preservation of the Hindu trinity, pledges to always take care of humanity when he is needed. How? He is reborn as an avatar-as a human that walks the earth. There are thought to be 10 avatars of Vishnu, the first 9 have already appeared in history and the 10th is yet to come. In Hindu art, he is often depicted as a blue human, which is a pretty good tip off if you ask me. His two most famous avatars are Rama, the king that appears in the Hindu epic Ramayana and as Krishna, friend and mentor to the warrior Arjuna who stars in the Mahabharata. The Bhagavad Gita (or the song of God) is a section of the Mahabharata where Krishna gives Arjuna advice about his dharma and really about every part of life, and discloses that Vishnu is god in every sense. More on this later]
You are right, Arjuna: the mind
Is restless and hard to master;
But by constant practice (abhiyasa) and detachment (vairagya)
It can be mastered in the end.
Yoga is indeed hard
For those who lack self-restraint;
But if you keep striving earnestly,
In the right way, you can reach it.
-6.35-6.36 of the Bhagavad Gita, Stephen Mitchell translation