aparigrahastairye janmakathamta sambodhah
When we are established in non-attachment, the nature and purpose of existence is understood
YS II,39 translation by Alistair Shearer
Yamas - observances for living well - are the first of Patanjali's guidance for yogis: the last of the yamas is aparigraha: greedlessness. Aparigraha describes everything that we are attached to, be they possessions, people, opinions or ways of living.
It is almost the antithesis of how modern capitalist society operates: our economy is based on the accumulation of more stuff; our advertising industry spends millions trying to make us feel that we lack something, or that happiness will be ours if we purchase that toothpaste, or this gadget; and where the worth of a human being seems to be calculated on what they have and what they do for a living, rather than how they behave & what they contribute to society.
In asana practice aparigraha might manifest itself as attachment to practising a certain way. You might play with the idea of aparigraha in your practice by asking what you can let go of in your practice... Your ego? Your competitiveness? Your fear/dislike of certain poses? Or you could think about what you are attached to in your practice... Being the best at forward bends? Being the worst at forward bends? Do you collect postures, moving onto the next new thing as soon as you have mastered a pose?
Injury & illness give us a great opportunity to work with aparigraha, because they demonstrate just how attached we have become to doing yoga practice a certain way. When we are injured or ill, we have to let go of what our practice looks like when we are well; if we want to recover, we are forced to work around our injury with sensitivity. It can be so frustrating, but it is often the only way to discover what yoga is truly about; that there are more ways to peace & being still than are found leaping about on a yoga mat, as joyful as that might ordinarily be.
In pranayama, you can explore the idea of aparigraha by working with your exhalation: it's the most basic physical form of letting go. Have you noticed how you sometimes hold your breath when you are in a challenging posture? As if you could keep it all together if you hold onto it hard enough? See if you can let go through your breath throughout your practice. Choose a really challenging pose, or one that you find mentally difficult (handstand? full back-bend?) get yourself into your version of it and breathe... just let go and see what happens.
We all grapple with aparigraha every day: how much is enough & what constitutes too much; how to keep a sense of what we are inside, when so much of modern life seem to be about appearances.
"Aparigraha is the subtlest aspect of yama and difficult to master. Yet repeated attempts must be made to gain pure knowledge of 'what I am' and 'what I am meant for'"
BKS Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras, p 153
However, challenging, the concept of non attachment to possessions is an easy one to understand: don’t be greedy, don’t grasp always for the next thing, don’t forget that your possessions do not define you. Applying aparigraha to our personal relationships is a more subtle and more difficult matter. How can I be unattached to my children, my family, my partner, my animals? Doesn't that seem inhuman in some way? Doesn't that seem to be an attitude lacking in love?
But here is the thing: your capacity to love is not diminished by your capacity for non attachment.
Yoga practice leads us towards understanding that we are whole as we are, we were born whole; the practices that yoga teaches us lead us towards an understanding of that essential rightness. It teaches us that there is nothing that we need that is outside of ourselves. In our quietest and wisest moments, we know that this is true - it is not that which we own, or those that we know that make us who we are; it is our own self, as it is, with all its gifts and shortcomings.
Further, yoga teaches us that love is our birthright; that love is not something we seek outside of ourselves, or that we have to do something to get. True love is in us all along; we are love.
So, we are whole and we are love. I am and so are you. So are your children, so is your partner, so are we all.
Non attachment in personal relationships looks like knowing that you are whole on your own and not relying on other people for a sense of who you are; not looking to others to give you the love that crave, since that love lives within you already.
Non attachment to other people means allowing them their own mistakes and missteps as you received yours, knowing how much is learnt from the times that things go wrong, knowing that wisdom lies there. This is a very difficult prospect and a very fine line to walk when you have children.
Non attachment to other people looks like the capacity to let them go when the time comes to let them go.
Look, no yoga practice is easy. If you were looking for an easy answer, then you are looking in the wrong place. Patanjali is very clear that you are at liberty to ignore his teachings, but if you do you will continue to suffer the pain of wrong headed thinking.
We don't own anything, we don't own anyone and nothing that anyone else can give us can change how we feel, not in the long term.
So, seek non attachment to others, try to understand that they are on their path, as you are on yours, and all that is left then is to love them, to love then with all that you have, to love them whoever they are. And to allow them to tread their path as you must tread yours.
“The wise live naturally in the state of non-attachment”