photo credit: Verapose Yoga

photo credit: Verapose Yoga

YS II.39 aparigraha-sthairye janma-kathamta-sambodhah

When one becomes firmly established in greedlessness, one obtains knowledge regarding the process of birth and death.

The last yama described in Patanajali’s Yoga Sutras, aparigraha has been translated by different yoga masters using various words: non-covetousness, non-possessiveness, non-hording, non-grasping, non-greed, abstention from greed, non-attachment to material things, non-receiving. The ending is also translated into multiple shades of the same idea: knowledge of past and future existences, knowledge of the how and why of existence, memories of past life. It’s interesting to note that all the words for aparigraha are negatives, as if there is no positive way to describe the concept represented by the word. And what is gained by mastering this practice leaves room for interpretation: is it a general knowledge of existence (birth and death) or is it specific to oneself?

Let us back up and look at what we do know. The five yamas are all prescribed behaviors, restrictions or restraints, known as the universal great vows. They relate to our interaction with others—not just people, but animals and the planet as well. The point in practicing them is to purify our thoughts, words, and actions, which, in turn, raises our vibrational level (remember, like all living these, we are made of energy, which vibrates), bringing the individual self closer to the higher, cosmic, or universal Self (=enlightenement). My teacher, Sharon Gannon of Jivamukti Yoga, used to ask, “What is a perfect action?” The answer: a selfless one. I also remember Sharon said that if ahimsa (the first yama) was considered the cornerstone of yoga philosophy, then aparigraha was the key. In review, the five yamas are non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, moderation, and now greedlessness. If this last one is the key that unlocks the others, then let us explore the concept more deeply to find out how.

When we reflect on the various translations above, we see some a common core: desire for, or excessive attachment to, material possessions. In other words, selfishness, the opposite of a perfect action. What does every parent say to their small child when he or she takes another child’s toy or won’t allow the other child to play with it? Share. The opposite of greediness is sharing, which is also the remedy to this affliction. Eventually, most children learn how to share; it is a part of socialization, learning how to live in harmony with others. Aside from the obvious amassing and hording of material things, how else do adults manifest this?

Let’s start with covetousness, which means wanting something that is not yours. You haven’t actually stolen anything (that’s covered by asteya, non-stealing), but you’re thinking about it. In my commentaries on the previous four sutras, as well as above, I mention the three ways in which we affect others: through thoughts, words, and actions. The impact of these is actually in the reverse order. That is to say, harming someone physically, for example, is actually less serious than thinking about harming that person. The reason for this is that actions—and words—do not arise spontaneously; they begin with a thought. It then follows that if we want to purify our words and actions, we need to peel them back until we get to the thoughts that create them, then remove the seed. In this way, the negative words and actions cannot grow and flower.

What about non-grasping, non-attachment? Another way to say this is clinging. Why do we cling to things (or people or memories or ideas) when the nature of everything is temporary? The saying “You can’t take it with you” says it all. It’s about death. We cling to things because deep down inside, we are terrified of dying. And what we cling to most fiercely is life. It is our lack of awareness of this underlying cause that twists our existential fear into a futile attempt to hold on to things that we can touch or call our own, things over which, unlike death, we have some degree of control.

Once we realize this, and embrace the fact that we will one day die, this knowledge sets us free from the tyranny of materialism, the core of which is selfishness. This is the knowledge of existence, of life and death, both individual and universal. To unlock this knowledge, we must use the key: Share. Of course, this doesn’t just mean sharing physical belongings. It means shedding our own self-doubt, self-consciousness, and judgment to share ourselves with others. It means taking down the barriers and opening our hearts. It means letting the love flow out, because, as they say, “Love isn’t love until you give it away.”

by Laura Golden