Thank you for joining me on this 5-part exploration of the yamas, the ethichal principles that are fundamental to the yoga practice and to our lives. The yamas represent the 1st limb of the 8 Limbs of Yoga outlined in the Yoga Sūtra by Patañjali. This article explores the 5th and FINAL yama!
If you missed the 5-Part Yamas Series: I invite you to start with Part 1. In this series I provide definitions for each of the 5 yamas and offer you a variety of ways to practice them in your daily lives.
For those of you who have followed with me all along: Before we dive into the 5th yama, aparigrahā (non-possessiveness), I’d like to thank you for exploring these practices with me! Years ago when I first began studying the yamas, I felt a true sense of connection to Patañjali’s way of teaching ethics. It really resonated with me because he didn’t proclaim that these principles are black and white rules. Rather he offered them as guidelines on how to treat others and our planet. While none of us are perfect in our actions, we are encouraged to keep moving toward more skillful action. We have our setbacks, yet there is no judgement. Each new moment provides us with opportunities to practice. Just like having a consistent āsana practice (the physical practice of yoga), we are encouraged to keep practicing the yamas again and again and again.
Let’s Explore the 5th Yama, Aparigrahā, Non-Possessiveness
This yama invites us to explore the intentions and motivations behind our thoughts and actions as it relates to possessing things, people, and fixed ideas of how we think things should be. As I researched this yama, I realized it affects many parts of our lives and challenges us to question some of our basic values. For example, the definition of success in most cultures IS what we possess: status, things, reputation, friends, or money. Don’t worry, aparigrahā isn’t asking us to let go of all our possessions, after all this life is meant to be enjoyed! We are supposed to have fun and be happy and, yes, buy things! It’s when our thoughts and actions are based in fear and/or greed that causes the problems and where the practice of aparaigrahā is needed.
Definition of Aparigrahā
Aparigrahā is the practice of non-possessiveness or non-hording. It consists of letting go of grasping to or clinging on to material things as well as the need to control situations, ourselves and others. It asks us to consider where we may be possessive and try to understand the underlying reason why.
Personally, I feel this yama is the one I need to practice most! It touches on so many aspects of our lives! It pertains to how much stuff we accumulate---do we really need another pair of shoes? (Guilty!) It’s about wanting to control how we may be perceived by others. (Guilty!) It includes our need to control the outcome of a situation. (Guilty again!) We also can be possessive with the people in our lives when we try to control their actions. This tends to happen with those closest to us, like our children or spouse. (Whew! I think I’m not guilty on this one!)
When we acknowledge the area(s) in our lives where we may have this challenge, then we can begin to see the limiting attributes these habits may cause. The grasping onto things, people, or limiting beliefs can be exhausting. While letting go can be liberating, because now you have time to focus your energy on life as it is and enjoy the moment without worrying about how you can control it.
Sometimes this need to be possessive and controlling may be out of the desire to protect and direct a positive outcome for all involved, like “encouraging” your child to do the “right” things to get them into college. Other times the need can come from greed, jealousy or other harmful---yet human---emotions. Whatever the intent may be, when we come from a place of fear, the results may not come out the way we want them to. Our clinging to a certain idea or desired outcome constricts the flow of positive energy. When we loosen our grip and let life flow on its natural course, we may be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.
Ways to Practice Aparigrahā
What ways do you catch yourself being possessive? Is it with your spouse or is it with your consumption of food? Or is it just your desire to possess a lot of material things? There is an unlimited amount of ways we can practice aparigrahā, but here are just a few to get you started:
Let go of the need to possess in excess
This first practice I’m suggesting tackles being non-possessive with material things. Here I’m challenging you to not purchase anything new (except for practical things like food, water, medicine, etc.) for one entire week. During this time, when you catch yourself feeling the desire to buy something, stop and think why you want it. Jot down a few notes in your journal about what you are feeling and anything else that may arise. At the end of the week, review your notes and notice if there’s a pattern of behavior. For example, you may notice that you tend to have an urge to buy something when you are feeling a certain emotion, such as boredom or stress. Take some time to explore what may cause this. On the flip side, you may notice that there isn’t a negative emotion associated with your desire to purchase things. Kudos to you! That is a healthy way to be.
Also, at the end of this week check in to see how it felt to not buy anything for one week. What comes up for you? Some people may feel it to be a liberating experience. Not having so many things can be freeing, because: you save money, you don’t have the responsibility of taking care of it and it doesn’t take up space in your life. Too many material possessions can literally weigh you down. They are heavy on your minds, bodies and souls.
For an added bonus give away 7 things (1 item for each day of the non-consuming week) that you don’t use much to someone else. Generosity is a perfect antidote to possessiveness!
Let go of the need to control
This second practice I’m recommending focuses on not being possessive with your beliefs. It’s the practice of letting go of fixed ideas of how you may think things should be. In this case you may be clinging to your perceptions of how you think you should act, or how you believe others should act. Or you may be trying to control outcomes of certain situations. This area is a little trickier to practice and a harder habit to break. Control issues tend to be caused from childhood experiences---at least that’s where my control-freak nature comes from! The following practice is not intended to solve these deep-seeded samskaras (patterns), but it’s a starting point. I’m just hoping to help you crack open your heart a little so you can see that trying to control your life and others’ is only holding you back from truly being engaged with your life. Michael Stone says it beautifully in his book, The Inner Tradition of Yoga:
“The more we let the threads of storytelling dissolve, the closer we come to the experience of life.”
I think a consistent meditation practice will help you exercise your “letting go muscle” and I have just the meditation technique for it! So, while you are practicing not buying anything for one week, add this specific meditation practice to your daily routine:
- Sit in a comfortable position with your spine elongated and your hands resting on your thighs. You can sit cross-legged on a blanket or sit in a chair.
- Set your timer for 15-20 minutes.
- Close your eyes and begin to focus on your breath, breathing in and out of your nose.
- As thoughts arise (as they do), place them into one of two categories: thoughts of planning or remembering. That is generally what our thoughts are about. Try not to judge them as good or bad thoughts or create a story around the thought. Just silently label the thought, let it go and direct your attention back to your breath. Repeat this process through your meditation.
Not only does this practice help keep your attention on the present moment, it also helps you to let go of the need to cling (be possessive) to a story (good or bad) around your thoughts and ideas. It helps you to practice letting go of fixed ideas and simply enjoy the moment. Can you see how this concept would be helpful to practice in other areas of your life?
Thank you for participating in this practice of aparigraphā. I hope it has provided you some insight on how you may be acting possessively in parts of your life and provide you with some ways for you to soften this urge.