Special Series on the Yamas and Niyamas: Aparigraha

by Melissa West on June 9, 2010

This week in yoga class we continued our series of classes on the yamas and niyamas working with the final yama, or ethical principle as laid out by Patanjali in the yoga sutras. The fifth and final yama is aparigraha which means non-hoarding and non-possessiveness. At first glance I didn’t feel that triggered by this yama. I am a bit of a minimalist, if anything I throw things out prematurely. I’m not a big fan of accumulating things, in fact I live in a small house which be both live and work out of and that demands that we don’t keep a lot of things around. 

    As I reflected more deeply on this yama, I realized that I do in fact partake in my own kind of hoarding, both materialistic and otherwise. While working with this yama, it became clear that I am a big-time hoarder of knowledge. I want to learn more and more. I have a Ph.D. to prove that I’ve learned a lot. I keep tones of books around me at all times. I read and read. I listen to podcasts. I take courses. I interview my favorite authors on my radio show. I am continually filling my brain with knowledge. Aparigraha (non-hoarding) teaches us to trust our own resources. Part of needing to continually fill myself up with more and more knowledge is a profound mistrust of my own inner knowledge. All the books and study will never come close to tuning into my own inner wisdom and trusting it. 

    The sutra on aparigraha is translated, “by practicing aparigraha, we discover why we were born” (Nicolai Bachman’s translation). Nischala Joy Devi puts it this way, “Acknowledging abundance we recognize the blessings in everything and gain insights into the purpose for our worldly existence.” This is a pretty bold statement, one that suggests that without the external stimulus of our possessions we might just have more time for that yoga and meditation practice. 

    It boils down to the idea that sometimes our possessions can end up owning us rather than us owning them. Nicolai Bachman explains it this way: the more we accumulate things the more time we have to spend maintaining them and that means less time for our own internal development. One of the material possessions that owns me, I mean that I own, is my i-phone. I just love that little piece of technological heaven. I do invest a lot of time in it, texting, checking e-mail, facebook, weather and a new mindless game I like to play call LineUp 2. Now I’m itching to get an i-pad. Ultimately these things may bring me temporary happiness but the aparigraha points out to us that the only wealth that can sustain us long-term is spiritual wealth.  

    Like the other yamas a lot of our personal entrapment comes from a cultural level. We live in a consumer society. We are bombarded 24-7 by television, radio, print and electronic media to consume, consume, and keep consuming. The other day I saw an Ikea advertisement on television which was promising relationship harmony in the bedroom if you were to buy a closet organizer to solve your shoe-hoarding problem. Not only was the closet organizer purchase a consumer solution to hoarding shoes, but Ikea even perpetuated the cycle of consumerism by offering something like a 15% off card to be used in the next 3 months to consume more things at Ikea!!!

    Aparigraha does not mean to remove yourself from consumer culture altogether. When we practice aparigraha we just become aware of the areas that we over-consume and over-waste. I asked my students this week what they tend to hoard, answers ranged from shoes to clothes, papers to pens, towels to toilet paper, food to books. What is that thing you have to keep around to maintain your “sanity”? What is one thing with which you just can’t part? When we practice aparigraha we only acquire the things we really need and will actually use. If we are not going to use something then it is time to give it away. 

    Like the other yamas, aparigraha can be far reaching. In this case it does not only apply to material possessions. Aparigraha can also apply to our bodies, our thoughts, our emotions, our relationships, our beliefs, and our conversations. For example sometimes we can be particularly attached to a certain way of thinking. Ultimately that is called fundamentalism. I have met fundamentalist people from vegans to pro-lifers. In our relationships we can hog all the air-time in conversation. If there is a power-differential we can actually resort to controlling how we want the other person to behave. In what ways are you possessive our attached to outcome?

    When I first learned about aparigraha, I was taught about non-attachment. I was confused. There were relationships and things in my life where I felt that attachment was healthy. I approached my teacher to ask if there were any situations where attachment was a good thing. I used the example of my daughter. Wasn’t attachment to my daughter part of being a good mother? My teacher replied that it is with the outcome that we me must practice non-attachment. It is fine to be attached to my daughter, it is just important that I’m not attached to some particular way of her turning out. I can’t rely on my daughter for my fulfilment, nor should I expect her to behave in a certain way or turn out in a certain way to ensure my happiness. 

    Like asteya (non-stealing), aparigraha asks us to look at life from a glass-half-full perspective. When we come from the point of view of lack it will seem necessary to hoard so that we have enough. When we trust in the abundance of resources available to us we will be able to let go more easily. 

    Take some time this week to reflect on your particular version of hoarding. Is there something(s) that you could let go of whether they be mental, physical, emotional, a belief, or material possessions? Practice aparigraha by letting go with each exhalation and join us for episode 37 of namaste yoga for a complete asana class on aparigraha.  

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