“Freedom does not come from acquisition. It comes from letting go.” Sogyal Rinpoche
In the Bhagavad Gita it is said, “The yogi is quite happy with what comes unsought”; but here Patanajli goes further and says, “Stop receiving even that” (Svāmi Venkateśananda). Meaning, a person practicing Asteya (non-stealing) may not steal, but if something is given to her, she will take it. On the other hand, a person practicing Aparigraha, (non-receiving) will act in accordance with all Yama and Niyama to earn her living, accept no gifts and continue cultivating the absence of want.
Aparigraha, non-hoarding, non-receiving, non-greed, non-grasping, non-acceptance, is the fifth Yama, restraint, which appears in the second chapter, Sādhana Pāda, of the Yoga Sūtras (2.39). Essentially it is cultivating the attitude of letting go – of things, ideas, people – that we seem to want to possess, and acknowledging that we are surrounded by abundance.
While the third Yama, Astéya inculcates absence of want – an understanding that we have been given exactly what we need at each monent to grow (Carrera), Aparigraha, teaches greedlessness – renunciation of desire for possessions – which is correlative to the gradual suspension of ego-identity in favor of the transcendental Self. (Feurstein)
I thought it best to present commentaries of a few yogis who have shared their wisdom after years of practice. Their words have made these principles come alive, making it both a pleasure and bane to practice.
अपरिग्रहस्थैर्ये जन्मकथन्तासम्बोधः॥२.३९॥ Aparigrahasthairyé janmakathantāsambodhaḥ||2.39||
- Literal meaning – established in Aparigraha, one gets the awareness of birth & death (knowledge of previous births).
- On becoming steady in non-possessiveness, there arises the knowledge of how and from where birth comes. (Svāmi Satyānanda Sarasvati)
- One who lives free from possessions and lives without greed reaches, the path of knowledge and wisdom which is real and permanent. (BKS Iyengar)
In the sections that follow, the first paragraph under the heading of the author briefly introduces the writer, followed by their commentary on the topic at hand. Their books and others are listed below for further study.
Charlotte Bell began practicing yoga in 1982. She received her yoga teaching certification from B.K.S. Iyengār in Pune, India.
When we set our habits, our beliefs and our ways of living in concrete, we become imprisoned by them. Letting go (non-hoarding) of what is no longer appropriate in our lives releases us to all possibilities.
Sometimes we do not choose to let go; the circumstances in our lives often dictate that we must. Without continuous change it would be impossible to grow. It is letting go of the old, the things we no longer need, that makes room in our lives for whatever is to come.
As we live and grow, our understanding becomes more refined. As we come to peace with the reality of constant change, wisdom grows. We understand that each forward step on life’s path requires us to let go of the previous step. The process of living rests in the delicate balance between the death of the old and birth of the new.
Our lives are a continuum of releasing and receiving. Thousand times each day our bodies naturally draw in and release the breath. When we inhale, we receive vital oxygen that enlivens the cells of our bodies. When we exhale, we expel toxic waste in the form of carbon dioxide. What would happen to our bodies if we only inhaled or held one breath all day? What if we chose to accumulate and never let go?
Dr. I.K. Taimni (1898-1978), a professor of chemistry at Allahabad University, India, made a deep study of Kashmir Shaivism and yoga. He is revered for his contribution to theosophical literature and his books have been translated into several languages.
Tendency to accumulate in worldly life is instinctive and binding. Essential and non-essential are relative terms making it difficult to cut down the so-called necessities. What then is luxury – which is not necessary for keeping the body and soul together but are meant for outwardly comfort and enjoyments. And, (with luxury) we are still disssatisfied. There is no limit to our desire for worldly things.
Once accumulated it depletes our energy to protect them and prevent pain and anguish at their loss. A would-be yogi minimizes possessions and eliminates unnecessary accumulation which fritter away his energies and which are a source of constant disturbance to the mind, hindering her progress. The necessity of cultivating this virtue lies chiefly in ensuring a state of mind which is free from attachments. Like the story of King Janaka who lives in a palace but with no feeling of possession, ever ready to part with everything at an instant.
As I continue to study the Yama, realization that there is no taking a vacation from even one of them can be daunting. Here, with Aparigraha, I have to learn to give up the tendency to constantly accumulate expensive objects of utility and enjoyment and work hard to retain only those that are essential for living. It makes sense because mastering aparigraha means keeping the mind unoccupied and worry free as there will be “no things” to ‘protect’.
In addition, living as a householder with a family and accustomed to creature comforts, I have to be mindful not to impose this ethic on others without violating the another important ethic of ahimsā.
The following questions (and more) were set during my intial Rāja Yoga training to understand this ethic, and still continues to be at the forefront in the practice of Aparigraha.
- To watch my inner conversation: Am I able to stop judging (hoarding unnecessary thoughts) while I am listening to someone? Am I always worried what someone thinks of me (possessed by ego)?
- To observe my behavior: Am I aware when I am trying to control the outcome of conversations (hoarding attention)? In the fear of not getting enough, do I take too much on my plate, only to throw away the leftovers? Am I able to not accept or desire what belongs to others (envy)?
- To monitor my words: Do I realize that in giving unsolicited advice I’m trying to control the relationship, possibly to show that I am superior?
- To notice how I deal with consequences: What happens when I form an opinion of someone or something and I’m unable to let it go? How much effort does it take for me to accept that others can change too? How long do I carry the burden of past failures or worries? Am I aware of the destruction I’m involved in each time I buy ‘stuff’ in plastic?
- To perceive that I am part of a whole: Do I eat each meal fearing that I won’t get the next one? Am I able to give something without expecting anything in return? Am I able to recognize abundance in order to let go of fear of loss? Do I have faith that I will always be taken care of?
It is amazing in how many areas of daily living Aparigraha can be applied and how difficult these practices can be. Every bit of effort counts.
For example, on the pretext of needing a special mattress for my lower back pain, a roll and a cushion for mediation, or blanket for my knees, etc., I am guilty of enjoying such comforts just to accomplish āsana and prānayama abhyāsa on a daily basis.
How attached am I to these objects and how can I be completely rid of physical ailments to eliminate the need for these objects? I am working towards being free from this enslavement, but ‘freedom’ is no where to be seen. In fact, as I am aging, more injuries or weaknesses seem to be appearing requiring additonal supports. Since these props are easily available to me, I am trying to practice with an attitude of gratitude (not attachment) each time I use these precious gifts.
Two valid questions:
- Does it mean that a person established in Aparigraha does not accept or hoard ‘stuff’, and is never possessive?
It is definitely possible. To live in freedom, Aparigraha can be approached with an attitude of respect, and appreciation towards material objects as God’s gifts versus obsessive possession, instead of spending a lot of time thinking about how to protect them and being afraid to lose them. It is our emotional response to these so called ‘luxuries’ that enslave us. It is not ability of giving up all material possessions – but the feeling of ownership towards material things – to become truly free and hence closer to the Divine Spirit. (Christensen).
- And with this mastery of freedom, is the knowledge of previous births actually revealed to this person?
Here, Aparigraha calls for the understanding of samskāras (habit-impressions). Awareness of samskāras embedded in the subtle memory plays a part in forming and modifying personality. The development of non-possessiveness through practice of Aparigraha frees us from the habit of identifying ourselves with our bodies and things which surround us and thus loosens the bond of personality (Taimni).
The natural result of this loosensing is that the center of consciousness is elevated; perhaps we may be able to penetrate the deeper recesses of life, develop the power to tune into our intuition and stumble upon extraordinary experiences which reveal the enigma of life. Yogis assert that the science of yoga promises the unravelling of the mysteries hidden in the depths of each mind and consciousness; the secret of such discovery however, is in the intensity of our effort (Taimni). It’s up to you now to practice and experience it yourself.
Patañjali warns us not to get attached to this thought of knowing previous births (and other yogic powers described in the third chapter) as it will become a distraction to the higher purpose of yoga practices. Practicing discernment (viveka) and detachment (vairāgya) while keeping the highest ideal (Īshvara) in perspective promises the ultimate union of yoga.
I have a long way to go to grasp the essence of this sūtra. For starters, most spiritual teachers advise constant questioning and vigilance to keep the intellect (Buddhi) awake in order to make the ‘right’ choices, and most importantly, to recognize and keep the old habit patterns at bay. The samskārā (habit-impressions) of possessiveness must be completely washed away, only then an aspirant can start a ‘new’ yogic life (Svāmi Satyananda Sarasvati).
For me, the practice of Aparigraha begins by being present when the desire to possess arises, being aware of mindlessly falling into acceptance of what is given and by actively simplifying the things I need from what I want.
The secret of happiness is not found in seeking more but in developing the capacity to enjoy less. – Socrates
Christensen, Alice. 1998. Yoga of the Heart: Ten Ethical Principles for Gaining Limitless Growth, Confidence, and Achievement. American Yoga Association, Rodale Books, NY, NY.
Taimni. I.K. 1961. The Science of Yoga: Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali. The Theosophical Publishing House, Chennai, India and Wheaton IL.
Carrera, Jaganāth, Rev. 2006. Inside the Yoga Sūtras. Integral Yoga Publications, Satchitānanda Āśram-Yogāville, Buckingham VA.
Bell, Charlotte. 2007. Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice. Rodmell Press, Berkley, CA.
Venkateśānanda, Svāmi. 2011. First Edn 1988. The Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali. Motilal Banarasidas, New Delhi, India.
Iyengar, B.K.S. 2002. First Edtion 1993. Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali. Harper Collins, London, UK.
Aranya Hariharananda, Svāmi; Mukerji, P.N. 1963. Yoga Philosophy of Patañjali. Reprint 1981 by State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.
Mishra, Rammurti. M.D. 1973. Yoga Sūtras – A Textbook of Yoga Psychology. Doubleday Anchor Press, Garden City, New York.
Prabhavananda, Svāmi; Isherwood, Christopher. Patañjali Yoga Sutras. Rāmakrishna Mission Press, Mylapore, India.
Feuerstein, Georg. 1979. The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali – A New translation and Commentary. Inner Traditions International, Rochester, Vermont.
Sarasvati Satyānanda, Svāmi. 1976. Four Chapters on Freedom – Commentary on Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, India.
Iyengar, B.K.S. 2013. Core of Yoga Sūtras – The Definitive Guide to the Philosophy of Yoga. Harper-Collins, India.
Satchitananda, Svami. 1978. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Integral Yoga Publications, Buckingham VA.
Yogānanda, Paramahamsa; Kriyananda, Svāmi. 2013. Demystifying Patañjali – The Yoga Sūtras. Crystal Clarity Publishers, Nevada City, CA
Govindan, Marshall. 2000. Kriya Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali and the Siddhas – Translation, Commentary and Practice. Kris Yoga Publications, Quebec, Canada