Updated: Apr 30, 2019
Many yoga practitioners are familiar with the yamas, ethical precepts for behaving righteously. Some of these, like ahimsa (non-harming) or asteya (non-stealing) are familiar, present in nearly every major belief system. Others, like aparigraha, or non-grasping/ non-seizing, we might need to think on a bit. But as we make space for spring, learning to loosen our grip can be very useful indeed.
The last yama, aparigraha, is often interpreted as non-possessiveness or non-attachment. Unlike asteya (non-stealing), which concerns that which does not belong to us, aparigraha deals with that which we perceive as ours. Like the other yamas, aparigraha can be interpreted both externally and internally. For example, ahimsa (non-harming) can, and should, extend to one’s self. But aparigraha has a particularly strong internal aspect because it necessitates wrestling with our most deeply ingrained habits and perceptions.
It is not only enough not to take, we must also let go, and the things that are hardest to let go of are those we see as being truly part of us.
Our feelings, memories, and nostalgias, our resentments and our wounds make up a massive part of our sense of identity, and so are difficult to release, even if they are painful. We can also accumulate and hoard people: friends and associates who have become toxic, or lovers we never fully untether, because we fear being alone.
While the other yamas are relatively straightforward - don’t steal, don’t harm, don’t lie, and so on, aparigraha is a bit more nuanced and challenging. Most of us want to be good people. We don’t want to hurt others; we don’t want to thieve. But we do feel entitled to that which we perceive as having earned. Now, this could be anything from a fat paycheque, a healthy body, or a story in which we are the innocent victim.We get attached to the fruits of our efforts, to rewards and material manifestations, and this attachment clouds our sight and pollutes our motivations. We become accustomed to doing things for the outcome, rather than for the sake of the act itself.
In our physical yoga practice, we can strive to remain present in the moment by detaching ourselves from any kind of desired outcome, like a perfect posture or a trimmed-down waistline. In a culture where asana practice is perceived as the entirety of yoga; where people lament they’re “not good at yoga” because they're not double-jointed; where folks worry about how many calories they’re burning in class, there are lots of opportunities to cultivate a peaceful practice of letting go. How does our practice change when we let ourselves simply experience it in the here-and-now, instead of thinking about how it will benefit us later, or what the "point" of it is? How does our experience change when we unburden ourselves of expectations?
The applications of this concept are myriad. It can be applied to the ways we sleep, to the ways we eat. T.K.V. Desikachar notes that it can also apply to gifts and rewards. To what do we feel entitled, and why? Where in our lives do we take more than we need? And how do we figure out exactly what it is that we need in a world that seems hell-bent on accumulating as much as possible?
We live in a “storage” culture, to borrow a term from Marie Kondo. The author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying contends that in consumer culture, clutter is misrepresented as a problem of a lack of storage rather than an excess of stuff. But this tendency to hoard, to grab on and not let go, is often readily visible in our relationships with others, and in our idea of who we are.
Gently allowing ourselves to let things go, whether they be painful memories, outdated conceptions of the self, or pants we don't fit into anymore, is a tough but powerful practice that helps us get clear on what it is that we really need right now, and thus live more fully in the present.
So this Spring, as we Marie Kondo our wardrobes or our garages, may we find the strength to let go of what no longer sparks joy internally, too!