Non-attachment is an important concept and practice for yoga practitioners. In a world where transience is the one constant and even life itself is ephemeral, attachment to things, to people, to oneself is fraught with the potential for suffering.
Some people in parts of the North Island have had their homes, farmlands, orchards, personal effects and so on obliterated in the flood waters, mud, slips and mayhem of Cyclone Gabrielle. These things were there and now, they are not. But the people go on. Even those who have tragically lost family members or friends in the floods and slips go on. The discontinuity of the people and things around us sits in stark contrast to our continuity – until we, too, are discontinued.
Given the fickleness, the transience and the uncertainty of the things about us, it is not healthy to form too strong an attachment to what is around you. When I started yoga in 2008 I got a yoga mat – more accurately, Margo probably bought me a mat – and that was my mat. I did not think when I first came into possession of it that it would only serve me for a relatively short time. It was kind of a squashy mat that suited me alright in the style of yoga in which I began.
I cannot remember discarding that mat but I know I no longer have it. It was replaced by a mat that I used to call “the road” – it was extra-long, extra wide, and was grey in colour. I liked that mat for power vinyasa yoga because of its dimensions and because it was stable and had decent grip. I assumed it would last an age. I was mistaken. The mat had coconut fibres in it. With use, the surface of the mat became worn and the fibres started to show through. The road developed potholes! Eventually, I needed a new mat and had to let the road go.
Since then, I have been through so many mats. My daily power yoga practice coupled with standing on and demonstrating on my mats at times as I teach, means that I wear mats out roughly on a six- to nine-monthly basis. I may have had an affectionate attachment to some of my early mats. I certainly recall being disappointed by the potholes in the road. But, I now have an aloofness with respect to mats. They come, they are of use for a while, then they lose some of their usefulness and I abandon them.
I believe and yoga philosophy would tell us, that we need to have sufficient non-attachment that we can let the things in our lives and the people in our lives go. Some people who have taught for Apollo Power Yoga, for instance, have moved on and no longer teach for us. I valued their teaching while they were here, I understand that they have their own pathways to follow, and I have let them go. I do not feel pain and I do not suffer from their absence. They were here. They have gone. It is as simple as that.
In contrast to that, I know someone who has great issues of suffering through attachment. I have some sympathy for them because their mother died when they were at primary school. That event caused them a strong sense of loss and a strong sense of dependency upon their surviving parent. When their father died, this person was very upset. At the time they were in their mid- to late-thirties. They were a grown adult and ideally capable of reconciling themselves to their loss. However, such was not the case. The person transferred some of their attachment to things their father had done including to a room their father had done building work on. When she was no longer able to access these things there were histrionics and recriminations that betrayed the great extent to which she was attached and the suffering that came from that.
Where does non-attachment appear in yoga philosophy? It is part of the idea of aparigraha which is one of the five yamas, or ethical underpinnings, of yoga described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The yamas constitute limb number one in the classical rendering of the eight limbs of yoga. Aparigraha is one element of the yamas.
Aparigraha is generally translated as non-hoarding and abstaining from greed. It may also mean not accepting gifts where there is a condition attached – where by accepting the gift you place yourself under an obligation to the donor to return the favour. It is clear, however, that where one hoards belongings and is selfish and greedy there is attachment at play. As yoga is a state of freedom and as attachment is a state of bondage, it stands to reason that that attachment is an obstacle to one experiencing the freedom of yoga.
The Sanskrit word “vairagya” means non-attachment. This notion is also directly addressed in the Yoga Sutras. As “yoga” is defined in the Sutras as the cessation of mind or as the stilling of the disturbances or distractions of mind, the author of the Sutras asserts that cravings for things and people are to be avoiding as they constitute disturbances and distractions. For someone who has freed themselves from these cravings, their consciousness is in a state of non-attachment, or vairagya.
The Sutras state that distractions and disturbances of mind are restrained by practice and by non-attachment. Vairagya means having a detachment from and a dispassion for everything in the material world but also from attachment to thoughts, ideas and perceptions. We have all seen people become wedded to a particular belief or perspective and hold so rigidly to that notion that they become lost in the idea and separated from reality and from connection with others. Detachment from desire and craving clarifies one’s mind and creates conditions for inner peace.
Must we avoid pleasure in life?
Does this all mean that we cannot enjoy the pleasures of life? Does this mean we must deny ourselves all enjoyable experiences? Does this mean we must avoid even the love of our partners, children and wider family?
In short, no, it does not. There are those who have interpreted non-attachment as necessitating a complete asceticism in which one denies oneself all earthly pleasures and even subjects oneself to austere rituals of deprivation or harsh environments to ensure one is not getting too comfortable and in danger of forming a dependency.
It is not the experience of something but the attachment to it that is the issue. Vairagya does not tell you not to enjoy a cherry blossom but rather not to be in despair when that fleeting phenomenon comes to an end. Vairagya does not forbid falling in love with someone but warns against creating such a state of dependency that you cannot function and collapse in despair and grief should you lose your loved one.
There is a trial running in the High Court right now where the accused is alleged to have murdered a former friend in circumstances where the motive is said to be the jealousy and resent felt by the accused towards the victim because the victim had started a relationship with the accused’s former partner. The accused is said to have been very upset by his separation from his partner with weight-loss and feelings of dejection apparent in the aftermath. The issue, as alleged by the Crown, is, ultimately, the degree to which the accused was attached to his former partner and unwilling to relinquish their relationship and, most particularly, unwilling to relinquish her to another man.
Enjoy a meal and a glass of wine at a restaurant. Enjoy an ice cream on a trip to the beach. But do not allow consuming alcohol to become a necessity in your life. Craving alcohol during the day or being unable to resist the craving for alcohol is a path to suffering. Bingeing on ice cream and eating it with compulsion paves the way to ill-health and excessive weight. The fact of enjoying a pleasant sensation is not the issue. The issue is when getting, having and keeping the objects of one’s craving becomes a driving force and you become preoccupied by the object.
The issue is not enjoyment. The issue is becoming attached to that which you enjoy. More than that, the issue is becoming attached, whether you enjoy or dislike something, whether you get a benefit from something or not. You may find you are attached to certain thoughts or beliefs. In that state, you are driven by those thoughts or beliefs just as a drug addict is driven by their need to replenish a drug in their system.
If you are attached to a belief that you are not enough, that belief will drive your day. It may drive your day by killing joy out of anything you do because you believe you are not good enough and whatever you do, no matter how good, it is not enough. It may drive your day by compelling you to fret over every detail in pursuit of perfection in order to disprove the idea that you are not enough. It may drive your day by causing you to perceive that everyone you come into contact with shares your belief – that they are looking at you through the same lens with which you look at yourself.
In one way or another, being attached may end in suffering. Avoid that degree of bondage. Be willing to let go. Be willing to let go of the pleasure you take in things or in people. Enjoy the sun but do not mourn over it when the clouds roll in. Enjoy the spring with its new growth and flowers and vitality, but do not collapse in gloom when autumn eventually comes and the trees drop their leaves, the days shorten and cool winds blow from the southwest. Value and love the people in your life while they are here but when they leave by moving out of home or to a new city or a new part of the world or to a new existence on the other side, let them go and be grounded in the moment and things and the people that are here.
Yoga philosophy does not tell you to take no pleasure in life. Some interpretations may have asserted that extreme austerity will bring you closer to the divine. But that is fringe philosophy. Yoga philosophy in more general understanding admits that there are pleasures in life and there is pain in life. Yoga philosophy counsels you to experience life as it is, laughing at jokes, feeling sad at misfortune and embracing the whole gamut of human experience. Beyond that, yoga philosophy warns you against becoming attached to any state or experience. Circumstances will shift. People will change. If you are not in flow with the changes of life but are attached to a particular state, a snapshot in time, you will be torn by the resistance such a state of attachment creates.