Aparigraha: Learning to Let Go

This Yama asks us to let go of our attachments to who we think we are, in order to spread our wings and become who we truly are.

This is part five of a 10-part series exploring each of the Yamas and Niyamas to discover how we can incorporate them both on and off the mat for a deeper, richer life of yoga.

Our lives are full of moments we wish would never end. It could be something simple like a long, hot shower on a cold day. Perhaps it is the sweet honeymoon period of a new relationship. As we get older, these moments start to increase. We wish we could hold on to our youth and vitality. We wish that our parents could hold onto theirs. We wish our children could stay young, and that our world would stay safe.

But change is inevitable, and clinging to moments, past or present, will not bring us peace. This is the lesson of aparigraha—aptly the last of the Yamas in our eight-limbed path of yoga. If we are to awaken to the fullness of our being, we must learn to let go.

Aparigraha has many translations. In its purest form, it resembles vairagya, the sanskrit word for detachment and renunciation. It is the path that India’s holy men, the sadhus, take when they leave all worldly things behind, and begin a life of austerity.

We don’t have to take this austere path to learn that the things we call ‘possessions’ can create madness. We need only look around us. We are a ‘storage’ society of boxes, and closets, and cupboards, and homes—stuffed full of things we do not use, but still will not part with. It’s not that we shouldn’t enjoy material objects, but somewhere along the way we became hoarders of them. “These things here—they are mine,” we say, and put them all in a box under the bed.

When we embrace aparigraha, we become like the fledgling bird. We were not born to stay clinging to a branch. We were born to soar….

It’s not just moments, or material objects, that we accumulate, and then cling to furiously. We also build up and hold onto resentments. We acquire and defend opinions and beliefs. We are so conditioned to think in terms of ‘me’ and ‘my’ that we may even believe that other people belong to us. Our partners? They’re “mine,” too.

To begin to practice aparigraha we have to let go of some of the physical, emotional, and mental baggage we’ve amassed throughout our journey. That box of photos covered with dust that we stubbed our toe on every other day? We can let that go. The relationship that never really feels stable?  That can go too. The beliefs and opinions and judgments? Even they must be put down.

When we let go, we grow.

Greater things come to us only if we trust that they will. And slowly as we practice aparigraha, we begin to understand what it is truly asking of us. It becomes clear that the previous Yamas have been preparing us for this moment. For what we realize is it is not the photos, nor is it the relationship, and neither is it the beliefs and opinions and judgments that we have been clinging to. Rather, it is our sense of self. But if we want to move along the eight-limbed path toward samadhi, even this must go.

Aparigraha pries our clutching fingers apart, and says: “No, my love. There is no ‘mine,’ because there is no ‘I.'”

Like the sadhus in India who must attend their own funerals as a ritual to honor vairagya, so we too must let go of our attachments to who we think we are, and become who we truly are. And while it may be scary, it will also be liberating. When we embrace aparigraha, we become like the fledgling bird. We were not born to stay clinging to a branch. We were born to soar, and in that moment we take flight.

For sure, it may not be the smoothest flight we will ever take. We will feel like we are falling. We will likely hit a few branches. And we have no idea what lies up there beyond the trees. But we do know, with our whole being, that we want to go there. As Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj says: “Such moments are most desirable, for it means the soul has cast off its moorings and is sailing for distant places. This is detachment—when the old is over, and the new has not yet come… There is nothing to be afraid of. Remember the instruction: Whatever you come across—go beyond.”

The ‘beyond’ that aparigraha is moving us towards is the next stage of the journey in our eight-limbed path—the Niyamas. There is no place for fear there, for they teach only love. And so we must arrive with empty hands, our wings spread wide, with the faith that whatever awaits us is far better than whatever we had to let go of.

4 Ways to Put Aparigraha Into Practice

1. Clean Out the Clutter

Liberate your closets—and your energy—by getting rid of all the things you don’t need. Marie Kondo, in her best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, recommends going through everything you own and asking yourself—Does this spark joy?—and if it doesn’t, thank it for whatever it gave you, and give it away. And if it does, ask yourself “why?” Soon you will begin to understand where your attachments lie.

2. Forgive Others

Forgive everyone. Immediately. Your ‘not forgiving’ does not heal your wounds—it only keeps them open. Whatever rituals you need, whatever letters you must write… Make the decision to free yourself from resentment and bitterness, and become the loving person you know you are.

3. Observe Nature

“No matter how much we adore the bluebells in the woods in spring, or the flowering acacia trees in summer, to become attached to them is futile,” says teacher, Mark Coleman in his book, Awake in the Wild. Nature is our most profound teacher on the inevitability of change. Spend time outdoors observing the change in seasons, and watch how life gives way to more life.

4. On the Mat

It is here, on our mat—with our breath—that we begin to witness the lesson of aparigraha. If we hold onto the breath too long, its nourishing qualities turn toxic. But if we trust the breath to leave us, we are rewarded with more life force. During our practice we have time to observe how fear can restrict this life force—through our tendency to hold the breath in challenging moments—while exhaling allows us to move more deeply into our posture.

Similarly during our practice, we have an opportunity to observe where we are clinging with our bodies. Are we afraid to let our neck fall back in ustrasana?  Are we gripping our toes to the mat in our warrior sequence like a bird afraid to fly? Perhaps we are clenching our buttocks during bhujangasana.

In all of these moments, we can realize that in order to have a deeper experience, we must be prepared to let go. And so we can come to the end of our practice, ready to sit in our meditation with our open hands, our vessel empty, ready to be filled up.

Join us next week as we explore the first of our five niyamas, Saucha: purity.


Helen Avery is a Section Editor at Wanderlust Media, working on the Vitality, Wisdom, and Wellness channels on wanderlust.com and YOGANONYMOUS. She is a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, and full-time dog walker of Millie.