Aparigraha (Non-possessiveness, Non-grasping)
Aparigraha is one of the five yamas of the Eight-Limbed Path as outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
Definitions of aparigraha:
- Non-acceptance, renouncing (of possessions besides the necessary utensils of ascetics)
- Non-reception of gifts which are too luxurious or bind you to the giver
- Non-coveting (covet=to want something [that you do not have] very much; yearn to possess or have something)
In Sanskrit, the a at the beginning of a word means ‘not’ or ‘non,’ making it the opposite or absence of parigraha. Definitions of parigraha:
- Attachment to material objects
- Acquisitive & accumulative behavior, greed, possessiveness
- Egoistic possessiveness (similar to grasping), making things one’s own
Right off, we can look at our desire for material objects. Honestly assess what you need in your life in this moment, and if you have a habit of becoming obsessed with new objects. Shopping can be an addiction, and the new item does not bring lasting happiness or make the craving go away.
Pitfalls within the practice.
As yoga practitioners (or teachers) we might feel like we’ve given up the ‘material’ habit, but have we replaced a craving for gold and jewels with a craving for designer yoga pants and spiritual status? Be aware that the yoga industry preys on the common human problem of yearning to possess things, and use discernment when navigating the current world of pop-yoga culture.
I gave up reading a popular yoga magazine many years ago when I was a beginning teacher. I noticed, after flipping through the glossy pages that I would become overwhelmed with an almost painful desire for new, expensive yoga pants! (How could I ever teach again in my boring old clothes?) Or, I would suddenly feel the desperate need to book myself on an exotic (and expensive) yoga retreat to learn the next new ‘style’ of yoga with the most in-demand teachers. (The savvy ads ooze inner peace and exclusive access to the mysteries of enlightenment.) A few moments later, I would wake up, and remember that I got a similar miserable, not-good-enough feeling when flipping through fashion magazines as a teenager. I gave those up in my early 20’s and found great relief.
Advertisers craft irresistible images to sell us stuff. We have to be mindful, and discerning in our relationship with possessions: material, intellectual, and spiritual.
Another way aparigraha can trip us up around yoga is in our asana practice. We can become desperate pose-collectors, destroying hamstrings and knees just to achieve the next pose. Ultimately the poses are also possessions. We won’t be able to take them with us when we die. Hopefully, we will see that there’s no big magical secret in the next pose. Even in perfect lotus or with our leg behind our head, we are stuck with our same, regular, imperfect selves and lives.
It does no good to covet your neighbor’s flexible hamstrings or feats of strength. We are here to do our own practice.
Wanting what you have.
Off the mat is the same. There is no use focusing on how we wish we’d had our friend’s great education or nurturing family life. We don’t focus on how we wish we could have their car, their job, their money, or ability to travel. It doesn’t change our situation to covet these things, and it fills our mind with wasteful and destructive thought patterns.
Grasping can be mind’s way of identifying itself.
In The Mirror of Yoga, Richard Freeman states, “Aparigraha is the tendency of the mind, under the sway of the ego, to simply snatch at things and claim them to be its own. The mind moves about [identifying with things]…in all spheres of activity—the political, economic, interpersonal, psychological realms, even in our private thoughts we can start to collect and accumulate things.”
My understanding is that once the mind identifies with something, it becomes rigid. We’ve put some part of our self (or others) in a box, and we are no longer available to the flow of the present moment. In what ways do you identify yourself? As a teacher, a student, a mother, a son, an academic, a Democrat, a Republican, a vegetarian, an early-bird, a type-A person, a worrier, a yogi, a Christian, a Buddhist, an atheist? What about more subtle identifications? How do these mental accumulations restrict relationships?
We all want to feel secure, like we know what is going on, when in reality no one knows. Our ego grasps at these identification structures to shore up the ground underneath us, to prevent us from experiencing the terrifying impermanence of being human.
A fruitful yoga practice does not evade the impermanence, the groundlessness.
The practice of aparigraha seems to be a way to use the workings of our mind to dive beneath those very workings into spaciousness. It’s a practice of trust, a challenge of continual dis-identification and letting go.
We can covet and crave new things, new ideas, new situations, even new adventures. Do we create a cycle of living for the next new exciting thing, always living in the future, or wishing we had more and more of something? Is this just healthy zeal for life, or is there an underlying feeling of inadequacy or discomfort in the present moment? Do these cravings prevent boredom, or distract us from things we’d rather not confront, like the groundlessness?
It’s important to watch our thoughts and actions, noticing when we begin grasping at things, or wanting what someone else has. Once we notice ourselves in the throes of aparigraha (anywhere along the storyline), we can step back, and ask: Is this a real need? Is this a healthy yearning for something? Are outside influences affecting my perceptions of what I ‘need’ and ‘want?’ If so, what steps can I take to remove or mitigate those influences? Be aware of the power of marketing and media. Be aware of the influence friends, family, social norms and culture. Be discerning about what you are taking in.
There is surely much more to aparigraha, but I hope this can get us started. And, as always, we practice self-investigation with ahimsa, kindness and compassion towards the self and others.