Aparigraha: learning to let go

Aparigraha is the idea of non-grasping. We’re talking about the synonyms of grasp, not the antonyms of grasp! I promise this is not an English lesson on the proper use of terms. Bear with me. Here are a few synonyms for grasp: hold, grip, clinch, clench, clasp, grapple, clamp, and lug. In yoga, Aparigraha asks us not to (fill in the synonym of your choice) thoughts, emotions, actions, ideas, people, things, situations, memories . . . that no longer serve. Translation: let go of anything that keeps you from realizing your own true nature. Learn to let go. Move forward to realizing your own true nature. Learn self-awareness to find your true nature.

Number 5 Aparigraha caps off the list of the five Yamas with an interesting twist. After we consider all the nuance around the other four Yamas, we come to Aparigraha. The Yamas ask us to study our thoughts, words and actions, that we might be more self-aware. And then, Aparigraha reminds us to not hold too tightly to what we perceive. Not to cling, even to our own self-awareness. Does this remind you of the odd phrase, “moderation, even in moderation?”

The five Yamas

  1. Ahimsa – non-violence
  2. Satya – truthfulness
  3. Asteya – non-stealing
  4. Brahmacharya – non-excess
  5. Aparigraha – non-possessiveness

Each Yama can be taken as literally as the Sanskrit translations allow. But a study into the Yamas, as a group, reveals that each Yama is more complicated than its direct translation. Aparigraha is equally vexing. When we are working on living a yogic life and trying to move forward on our spiritual path, “letting go” seems risky. We cling to our yoga practice, we hold tight to our need to be better practitioners of yoga. Easing up, letting go, and softening are all a hard sell to a dedicated yogi.

To release or to restrain

The root of Aparigraha is in the term “Parigraha.” Parigraha is greediness and possessiveness. The “A” in Aparigraha indicates it is the opposite of Parigraha. That points to Aparigraha as a form of self-restraint. We release excessive internal and external attachments. We restrain from achieving anything by way of harm or destruction to other sentient beings. We release the need to take possession. Aparigraha asks us to hold the reins lightly.

To reach or to grasp

The poet Robert Browning wrote a 267 line poem titled “Andrea del Sarto.” Fortunately for him, part of one line is recognized by millions with no interest in (or knowledge of) poetry. It is this:

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Unfortunately the rest of his sentence didn’t make the same famous cut. “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” Exactly. What IS heaven for, but to remind us of the infinite? We stop ending some pursuit with a grasp, and are freed to reach for our infinite being. Our own true nature. Free from limiting beliefs, free from grasping onto the borders of our limited personality.

The end of suffering

The letting go of Aparigraha is an end to a type of suffering. Similar ideas exist within other spiritual traditions. Buddha taught the four noble truths and the path that frees us from suffering (abandoning our expectation on the way things must be). Christianity commands us not to covet in a whopping two of ten commandments. All manner of suffering is in store for adherents not sticking to these spiritual paths. Psychologists have even described insatiable greed and its inherent grasping as an addiction. This grasping stuff is widely recognized as a real sore spot!

Five mindful ways to practice Aparigraha

  1. Watch your internal dialog for words like: always, never, all, nothing, must, should
  2. Be aware of feelings of envy and jealousy
  3. Make a gratitude list. Include people, things, gifts, and accomplishments.
  4. Examine your goals with an eye for the purpose behind your striving
  5. Adopt a short breath practice: inhale and say to yourself “I am,” exhale saying “enough”

Five ways to develop this discipline – the Niyamas

  1. Saucha – purity
  2. Santosha – contentment
  3. Tapas – disciplined use of our energy
  4. Svadhyaya – self-study
  5. Ishvara-Pranidhana – surrender and devotion to a force higher than yourself

As the first of the 8 Limbs of Yoga, the Yamas set forth a challenging list of social and ethical restraints. With the second of the 8 Limbs of Yoga, we are presented with the help guide: the Niyamas. The Niyamas assist us with needed personal discipline and self-study. It is through the Niyamas that Aparigraha can be recognized. Then, with our complete yogic practice we are able to compare and contrast what is real with what is the conditioning of our personality. We come to realize we are able to reach for our own true nature, our own limitlessness, Or what’s a heaven for?

 

Brahmacharya: Conservation of Life Force Energy

List of the Yamas

Working with our life force energy is a primary, physical yogic practice. We “stretch the muscles” of that life force with the body and our breath. The philosophical and spiritual aspects of yogic practice are also primary to working with life force energy. Brahmacharya falls into this latter category of working with “mind stuff.” Brahamacharya is one of the Yamas, the first of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Brahmacharya is the mindful practice of conserving life force energy, making it more available for our spiritual journey.

To focus our life force energy we can start with Asana, the physical body postures of yoga. Asana is probably the most recognizable form of yoga. Most people understand that yoga involves body postures such as downward facing dog, sitting in Lotus posture, or holding some variation of the Warrior postures. And from Asana, we move into the breath practices of Pranayama. Asana and Pranayama are practiced together. Our gateway to generating and directing life force energy is through the body. We move, we breathe. We focus, we transform.

Brahmacharya is the fourth Yama. The Yamas are a listing of ethical guidelines, although not necessarily worked through in a particular order! The 5 Yamas are as follows:

Ahimsa – non-harming
Satya – truthfulness
Asteya – non-stealing
Brahmacharya – non-excess
Aparigraha – non-grasping

Taken together, the Yamas give us a way to recognize how we are directing our life force energy with our words, actions, thoughts, and intentions. By examining ourselves in meditation and contemplation, we begin to recognize where we are sending our energy. Another term for life force energy is Prana. And as the saying goes, “Where the mind goes, the prana flows.”

Brahmacharya asks us not to waste our life force energy in excessive behavior. If we become too heavily invested in something (you name it: fame, fortune, sex, money, rock and roll, and so on . . . ) we pour all our life force energy in a single focused direction. Sometimes single focus is needed to achieve goals and to accomplish things. A sign of single focus overload, and imbalance is when we describe ourselves as burned out, wrung out, or stressed out. The ability to bring our energy back in balance allows the life force energy to flow with comfort and ease.

A yoga practice gives a full range of tools to achieve balance. We prime the body for balance by moving the limbs, stretching, holding, centering, and breathing. Breathing deeply and thoroughly. Breathing into the posture, visualizing the breath as it rises up through the body and moves gently downward in a easeful and grounding direction. We engage the muscles and experience the sensations of that muscle activation. The body moves and is stimulated. The nervous system is queued by the breath for either action or to reach a calm state. The mind becomes focused on every experience of the body, and the monkey mind is tamed by being given the task of total awareness. And then we step off the mat!

Yoga has both “on mat” and “off mat” components. Both require yoga practices to develop a keen awareness to our own personal experience of body, mind and emotion. Brahamacharya and the other Yamas of Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, and Aparigrapha are off the mat yoga practices. By watching our thinking and questioning our intentions, we may become aware of a mind/spirit imbalance. Here are a few subtle examples of how Yamas may give us opportunities for more balance:

Ahimsa (non-harming, or doing no harm) – we realize we are making judgement calls about a complete stranger. Rather than looking away or avoiding them, we decide to smile and offer a few words of friendly conversation. We do this because we realize others may sense they are being judged and rather than continuing to perpetuate that harm, we choose differently.

Satya (truthfulness) – we notice one day that something we have believed in is a “truism.” It turns out to be fully formed by our personality, upbringing and culture. We may have been believing something simply because “it’s always been done that way.” We realize it isn’t really true, after all. We experience the difference between our distorted thoughts and our own true nature.

Asteya (non-stealing) – after realizing our constant tardiness is an irritation to our family and friends, we decide to stop wasting their precious time. Rather than “stealing” their time by making them wait, we decide to return that valuable item! We show more patience, we offer to do a favor or a task that will lighten their load. We begin to understand we should not take that which is not offered (someone’s time, their energy, their self-respect, etc.).

Brahmacharya (conservation of life force energy, non-excess) – after reading some old journal entries we notice a pattern of negativity. Granted, the journaling project has helped us clarify our feelings. But in this hindsight we realize how much energy we have expended on worry, doubt, and agitation. We decide to start a gratitude journal!

Aparigraha (non-grasping, attachment) – We begin to question why we are hanging on to this idea of the perfect relationship. It’s caused us to “unfriend” people and disengage from others who seem to care for us. We wonder why we are so attached to having some need met, why we keep grasping for some great prize. It’s making us tired and depressed. We decide to give it a name. We call out its name when we see it working its way into our thoughts. Here’s a great story about that very thing: “I see you Mara!”

Brahmacharya helps us consider how we are spending our energy. A practice of Brahmacharya may be one where we take time to watch thought forms in the mind. This can be done on the mat, such as during seated meditation or during Asana. Or off the mat, by developing a “radar system” to detect patterns of excess. Patterns of thought, particularly reoccurring themes may clue you into places where you may want to consider conservation of energy. Developing awareness to sensation in the physical body, emotional activation in the nervous system, and awareness to thought forms are all tools to be sharpened through yoga practice. Through a regular (non-excessive!) yoga practice, a greater sense of balance will be achieved.