Yoga for difficult times: Aparigraha

Yoga offers ancient solutions to modern problems. But you could also say yoga offers ancient solutions to ancient problems, because when things go sideways in our lives, the themes are as old as the sun. Grief, loss, disappointment, illness, anger, pain, frustration, loneliness: none of these are unique to the modern world. Your girlfriend may have broken up with you over Snapchat, but there’s nothing newfangled about the heartbreak you feel.

In this series of blog posts, I discuss yogic practices that we can use to navigate difficult times. In previous posts, I looked at ahimsa, satya, asteya, and brahmacharya, the first four yamas. Today I’ll be focusing on the fifth yama, aparigraha (“a-pa-ree-GRA-ha”).

Aparigraha can be understood as “non-attachment, non-grasping, and non-aversion”. How can we practice aparigraha during times of difficulty? Here are some thoughts:

Recognize impermanence: Most people recognize the essential truth that nothing is permanent. You may accept this truth on a theoretical or intellectual level. However, the difficulty occurs when the truth of impermanence plays out on something you’re attached to. When something or someone you’ve come to count on changes or goes away, you’ll suffer to the extent that you’re attached to that person or thing.

Attachment vs. commitment: This yama is often misunderstood. Non-attachment doesn’t mean “not caring”. It’s possible to care very deeply about something without being attached. For example, perhaps you’re very active in working toward social change. If you’re attached to the outcome of your cause, any set-back will bring suffering and you may even find yourself discouraged to the point that you give up your cause. However, if you’re deeply committed to working toward your cause but not attached to a specific outcome, set-backs won’t get you down for long.

Another example: Perhaps someone has hurt you deeply. You’ve decided you want to speak to them in order to hold them accountable for their actions. You’re committed to approaching the situation with satya (honesty) and ahimsa (compassion). You’re hopeful that the interaction will bring about a resolution for your hurt feelings. If you can take comfort from the simple act of speaking your truth, you may find the resolution you’re seeking. However, if you’re attached to the idea that this person will recognize the harm they’ve done and apologize, you’re setting yourself up for possible suffering. You can’t control how others respond to your actions. Attaching yourself to outcomes beyond your control is a recipe for suffering.

Recognize the causes of suffering: When you find yourself suffering from anxiety, depression, grief, or stress it may be useful to ask yourself whether the cause of your suffering is related to your attachment to something or someone. Reminding yourself that nothing is permanent may not feel very comforting in the moment, but it could help bring things into perspective over time.

The ultimate attachment: The Buddha taught that the ultimate attachment is to the self. This explains why there is so much fear and aversion around illness, aging, and death. This also explains the popularity of so-called age-defying cold creams! Many religions teach meditations on death to help people come to terms with their own inherent impermanence. In yoga, we finish our asana practice with savasana, which literally means “corpse pose”. With the death of our practice, we practice our death. Likewise, we can meditate on our breath in this way: every inhale is a birth, every exhale is a death. Practice staying open to these small deaths, and slowly you may make peace with your own impermanence.

Like any practice, it’s much easier to develop a practice of aparigraha when things are going well. That way, when life becomes a struggle, you already have the habit in place.

How else can you practice aparigraha in difficult times? Let me know in the comments section below.

Image © 2016 Erin Bidlake

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