Category Archives: Sutras

Ishvara Pranidhana: Your Practice Is Bigger Than the Size of Your Shorts

Ishvara Pranidhana is the last of the Niyamas, or moral “observances” of yoga (read more about Patanjali and the 8 limbs of yoga here). It translates sort of like, devotion to God, which is a little tricky for some folks (I’m a Buddhist, so I feel free to go ahead and take some liberties here, which I’ll talk about shortly). It might also be one of the least popular observances to talk about in your sort of contemporary yoga class setting, at least in my experience. I guess it’s easier to talk about feel-good santosha (“be happy with where you are today!”) and “work it, girl” tapas (“one more navasana, guys!”) than it is about, um, devoting your practice to the divine.

For myself, though, and many others, a yoga class devoid of spirituality is not really yoga.  At our yoga studio (YogaFish), the teachers believe there is something more to the practice than just the physical element. This is why we do pranayama in our classes, offer free meditation, and offer chanting as part of the practice (even if it’s just the “Om”). Here’s how I summed it up for would-be visitors:

There are lots of great yoga studio options in the area. What YogaFish offers is an atmosphere of acceptance with an emphasis on the mind/body/spirit connection. Sure, if you want to come to class and just stretch and sweat, you can do that. We believe that what keeps people coming back, though, is the way that they start to notice their lives changing. In addition to the physical benefits (strength, flexibility, overall feeling of better health), there’s an increased awareness. More mindfulness, more appreciation, more self-insight. YogaFish instructors understand that experience- that’s how we teach. Our classes are designed to help our students achieve those insights.

As teachers and studio owners, we can create the space for students but ultimately, it’s up to the practitioner to decide how to handle their time on the mat. Ishvara Pranidhana is your opportunity to devote your practice to a higher power. In my classes, I offer time at the beginning of class to create a sankalpa– an intention, dedication, or resolution that can be a touchstone throughout the practice. I also suggest students bring their hands to heart’s center (anjali mudra) and chant Om with this intention in mind, so that any time their hands return to this mudra during class, they can be guided back to the higher intention.

Yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein, in his essay “Is Yoga A Religion?” says:

“At the heart of all forms of Yoga is the assumption that you have not yet tapped into your full potential as a human being. In particular, Yoga seeks to put you in touch with your spiritual core- your innermost nature- that which or who you truly are….you are free to allow your personal experience and realization to shape your understanding.”

In other words, you are free to interpret Ishvara Pranidhana however you like (in fact, you’re free to ignore it altogether)! Some students may choose to create a sankalpa that focuses on cultivating a particular positive attitude in their practice, or they may dedicate the practice to someone they know who needs that positive energy. To me, these are all different expressions of devotion, and I think a valid way to practice Ishvara Pranidhana. Not everyone agrees. According to Sharon Gannon and David Life and their school of Jivamukti Yoga, specifically devoting your practice to the divine is really a necessity:

“The yoga practices amplify and direct the pranic flow. If we do not consciously aim that flow upward, it will flow to whatever tendencies might be passing through the mind… The psychotherapeutic power of the yoga practices lies in their ability to bring unconscious feelings to the surface. This can be overwhelming, unless the practice is steadfastly dedicated to God. When that unleashed energy is directed toward God-realization rather than toward expressing unconscious selfish emotions, it becomes liberating rather than binding.” –Jivamukti Yoga

There have been times over the past two years where I came to my yoga mat and sort of felt like, What’s the point? Why bother? It felt like a job, or a chore. Sometimes it just felt like exercise.

Although I understood (and paid lip service to) the concept of Ishvara Pranidhana, it wasn’t really clicking for me. As a teacher, I knew I needed to maintain my self-practice in order to stay fresh and able to offer insight into my students’ practices, but I wasn’t able to make that direct connection. I was working from ego on my mat, that is, thinking about myself and my own practice and its ups and downs.

Interestingly, as I was feeling disillusioned with my asana practice, my meditation practice was growing, and I felt a disconnect between what was happening on my yoga mat and what was happening on my meditation cushion.My meditation practice includes time at the beginning and end of each session to dedicate the practice to the service of all sentient beings. I was in meditation one day when it occurred to me in one of those awesome lightning-bolt-of-intuition-moments that I was wasting the opportunity I had every day on my yoga mat. I could dedicate each whole asana practice in the same way!

Ashtanga yoga, which I practice, lends itself handily to a meditative experience. Students are asked to follow the tristana method by focusing on the breath (Ujjayi), drishti (a specific gaze/focal point in each pose), and the asana (which includes the bandhas). If you’ve ever tried to do all of these things at once for a whole 90 minute practice, then you know how hard it is to stay focused.

But with my understanding of asana practice as service- my Ishvara Pranidhana– I was able to use each of these three points of meditative awareness as an opportunity to serve. Every time I drifted away, I said to myself, “Hey now, engage your bandhas for the good of all sentient beings.” If this sounds a little nuts to you, I understand- at one point, it may have to me too. But I don’t need to understand how it works. Maybe it’s as simple as this- by bringing meditative awareness to my own practice, I’m learning more that I can share with my students. When I have a hard time doing something in my practice, or when my awareness drifts, or when I start wishing I had worn different shorts, I can use it as an opportunity to be compassionate toward others who experience the same thing. It’s not about me and my practice any more- it’s about something bigger than that.

Finally- for those days when even getting to the mat feels like a chore- I’ve been inspired by a Buddhist text that says the following:

Used well, this body is our raft to freedom. Used badly, this body anchors us to samsara (the ocean of suffering in which we all live).

May I continue to serve, to use this body well, for the benefit of all beings. 1972261_655174854544705_1407643906_n-1



Tapas: I Fell Into a Burning Ring of Fire

So, if anyone was paying attention (I’m trying not to flatter myself unduly), you may have noticed that SIX MONTHS have gone by since I last visited the Niyamas. It was all gangbusters right up through Santosha, and then things sort of just petered out as I ran up against Tapas.

Perhaps you are thinking “Tapas- a delicious Spanish appetizer.” Provided that they are vegetarian, I’m all in for this kind of tapas! But that’s not what Patanjali is all about. Tapas- often read as “heat,” “austerity,” “catharsis,” “burning discipline” or “burning zeal” in your practice- well, I thought, it’s not really a problem for me. I’ve got more Tapas than I know what to do with. As you may remember from my personal experience with Brahmacharya, I tend to overdo. If presented with a problem or an opportunity of some kind, my instinct is to work quickly and urgently to resolve it. If that means, for example, that my back is tight, I’ll do 9 Urdva Dhanurasanas every day for a month to try to resolve it- even if my wrists and shoulders are killing me. Ah, tapas. “Feel the burn” indeed*.

So when I got to Tapas, I sort of thought, hm. What to say here? I mean, my problem is not lack of discipline. It’s lack of moderation. Which is why I’ve written two times about Brahmacharya-!

Yeah, I could tell you that you this Niyama asks you to be disciplined, it requires you to be focused and committed, that if you want physical, spiritual, or emotional growth, you must be willing to work for it. All of this is true. This morning, though, I’m seeing Tapas in a different sort of light.

In his neat and concise commentary on the Yoga Sutras, Alistair Shearer sums up Tapas in this way:

(Tapas)…is usually translated as “austerity,” and as a result the popular image of yoga is of a discipline involving asceticism or mortification. In fact, the word describes yoga as a process of transmutation, an inner alchemy that burns away the dross of imperfection.”

Hm. What if Tapas isn’t something that I generate myself internally- but something that’s happening to me as a by-product of my yoga practice?

During the past few years, I immersed myself completely in yoga- committed as fully as possible to living the eight limbs. In the Buddhist tradition, you might say that I began to live the Dharma. I took refuge (Buddhist vows), and things really, really started to change.

I hear lots of stories about people whose marriages and relationships with loved ones become complicated and fearful when one partner takes up a serious yoga practice. So it was for me. “You’ve got religion,” my ex would say. “You joined a cult.”

I know it was hard for him. It was a big change. I no longer wanted to hang around with people who weren’t nurturing me in some way. I didn’t want to eat meat or watch horror movies or gossip (as much). I learned to hug and touch people in a way I’d been afraid to do.

Initially, it was like a big honeymoon with me and my practice. I felt amazing in so many ways, more honest and open and lighter and happier. I was pretty sure I had found the key to navigating through life joyfully. I’m sure I irritated many people during this time. “Yay! Yogayogayoga!”

But what happens when that first pleasure falls away? When you come home from yoga class, or teacher training, and you see your home with fresh eyes, and you consider the life you’ve built, and you can no longer not look honestly at it? If the truth you’re feeling inside doesn’t match the life you’re living outside, you can no longer be happy with things as they are. And then the real Tapas begins.

“Never think that you will be able to settle your life down by practicing the dharma. The dharma is not therapy. In fact, it is just the opposite. The purpose of the dharma is to really stir up your life. It is meant to turn your life upside down. If that is what you asked for, why complain? If it is not turning your life upside down, on the other hand, the dharma is not working… the dharma should really disturb you.”

This quote by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is on my fridge, where it reminds me every day that  I asked for this life. I wanted to live honestly and truthfully. I deliberately stepped out of my comfortable box- marriage, job, security- and (cue the trumpets) it burns, burns burns! 

Tapas, then, is not an internal process. It’s the searing flame of transformation.

“Tapas is growing our ability to stay in the unknown and the unpleasantness, rather than run in fear. It is the willingness to be both burned and blessed.” –Deborah Adele, the Yamas and Niyamas

In my case, once I’d made the conscious decision to be awake to my life, there was no turning back. This is not to say it has been easy. I’ve cried a lot, of course. I’ve even tried to run and hide- but once I was in the ring of tapas, so to speak, there was no way back out. Not any way I could allow myself.

With every passing day, week, and month, things continue to change at a rapid pace in my life. I have grown much more comfortable with the discomfort. I’m not growing so much as I am being burned down to my essential self. When life is hurting, I am learning to look through the pain and ask myself: Why is this hurting? What is the lesson? What is important here?  How can this help me to serve?

The fire still burns- but there’s a relief, too, to the letting go into the flame. I’ll leave you with this poem by Rainier Marie Rilke. I love how it sums up how it feels when we step out of our comfort zones and into the painful flame of transformation.

The Hour is Striking- Rainier Marie Rilke

The hour is striking so close above me,

so clear and sharp,

that all my senses ring with it.

I feel it now: there’s a power in me

to grasp and give shape to my world.

I know that nothing has ever been real

without my beholding it.

All becoming has needed me.

My looking ripens things

and they come toward me, to meet and be met.

*Last month when I met my newest teacher and she watched me practice, she said to me: ‘Some people I have to tell to work harder. That is NOT a problem for you. You are working much too hard.’

Enough is (Never?) Enough. Brahmacharya, Take 2

You’ll never believe it, but I had an actual real-life request from someone the other day to write about Brahmacharya (the law of yogic moderation). I felt, for one heady moment, as though I’d hit “the big time.” A blog request! For me!

The idea that anyone was interested in hearing my blogged opinion about anything was so  gratifying that I was really excited to get right on it- until I realized that I’ve already covered Brahmacharya in this post.

But, I considered, it’s almost certainly not coincidental that I am being asked to revisit the topic. Brahmacharya is a lesson I have yet to learn, or at least to assimilate fully into my life and practice.

I am highly qualified to talk to you about over-indulgence. During the early 2000’s (especially during college and the confused years right after), I over-indulged in caffeine and cigarettes. This paired nicely with my video-game addiction so that I was no longer a very functional member of society. A typical day might look something like this:

11 AM. Wake up, start video game on way to make coffee.
11:05 AM.  Sweet rush of relief. Cigarette and heavily sugared coffee in system, ready to engage in online drama of elves, dragons, etc., for next 12 + hours.
12:30 PM. Phone rings, but I can’t answer* because I’m either a) too busy with game or b) feeling guilty about what I’m doing. Open bag of Doritos and the second-to-last bottle of Coke.
3:00 PM. Remember that I forgot to take the garbage out, write a paper about Love In the Time of The Cholera, and that the Marlboro Lights are running low. Suppress emotions with some more Doritos and another cigarette.
6:00 PM. Bag of Doritos is gone and down to the last liter of Coke. Time to put on pants and go to the store. Decide to wait another hour for the online group I am in to disband as I don’t want to miss out on anything.
6:35 PM. Group has ended but there is now an online raid on a dragon starting and my presence is absolutely critical. Call Little Caesar’s. Ask if the driver will stop and buy cigarettes. Brush hair for the first time today. Consider brushing teeth, but time is limited. Keep mouth closed when pizza arrives.
2 AM. Raid is finally over. Eyes bleary and throat stinging. Chest feels heavy but I am very close to level 47 and having a lot of (delirious)? fun with an online friend killing giant spiders in an ice fortress.
2:15 AM. Last cigarette of the day. As I log off the game (“Night Lyssandra, **HUGS** Farramir”), I feel a wave of panicky sadness. Where did the day go? What am I doing with my life? When will I get it all under control?

Just for fun, here is a picture of me from that time. I am drinking a wine cooler, I believe, but put the cigarette down for the photo. I also put on my happiest smile, as you can see. TX Laura

While I eventually overcame the gaming and smoking vices, the underlying pattern has manifested in various ways throughout my life.  Later years would see me do things like compulsive exercise and calorie-counting. Over-working is another compulsive activity that I am still fighting. And yeah, yoga can be the same way.

These latter activities are more dangerous to the compulsive over-indulger because society is set up to reward them. “Oh, you’re so good about exercising,” someone might say to me. Or, in a corporate job where the unspoken expectation is that you work 50 hours per week, you weren’t going to get anywhere if you weren’t working 51**. And yoga, with its halo of wholesome goodness- well, of course, a daily yoga practice can only be good, right?

Deborah Adele, in her book  The Yamas & Niyamas, says, “In yogic thought, there is a moment in time when we reach the perfect limit of what we are engaged in. It is this moment of ‘just enough’ that we need to recognize.” She goes on to say, “Nonexcess is not about nonenjoyment. It actually is about enjoyment and pleasure in its fullest experience. The questions before us are: Are you eating the food, or is the food eating you? Are you doing the activity, or is the activity doing you?”

Blerg. I recognize the painful truth in the last question. There have certainly been times where my own yoga practice has gone from pleasure to excess. The physical signs are there, if I can heed them. When I’m over-practicing, I feel strain in my wrists, my neck, my knees.

There’s also a set of addictive mental and emotional behaviors. I can recognize the signs- a feeling of worry or stress if I’m not able to practice daily, or an unbalanced sense of displeasure if I feel that I’m not “performing” at my peak. A crankiness if someone comments that I certainly am practicing a lot lately. I might even be careful not to mention certain aches, pains, or injuries to certain people that know me too well. I might (and this is a little scary) not even tell people the truth about how much I am practicing.

I am really loving my Ashtanga practice, but there’s an element of danger there for someone of my disposition. I love the discipline of practicing 6 days a week, 2 hours per day. Of seeing the changes in my practice, measuring my progress against the previous week’s. The headiness of finding myself suddenly slipping into a new posture- and the (exhilarating? crushing?) knowledge that I could continue this practice for the next several years and still have places to grow. The endorphins are unreal.

Another way that I might over-indulge in my yoga practice is with specific asana. It’s easy to get really excited about a particular posture. Right now, I’m wooing Handstand, Supta Kurmasana, and Urdva Dhanurasana. If I were to be honest with myself, and with you- I need to back off at least one of these and let my body recuperate. Oh, it’s not easy, when I’m having so much fun- but when I ask myself:  Am I doing the practice, or is the practice doing me? I know I’ve crossed a border. I’ve gone beyond “just enough” into “just three more!”

But the fault itself is not in the asana (physical) practice. The fault lies with the practitioner (in this case, maybe, me) who is disregarding the ethical limbs of yoga. Brahmacharya. Ahimsa (non-violence).

As often happens, I often find just the encouragement or wisdom that I need, just when I need it. I ran across these words from BKS Iyengar this week. His ‘balanced practice’- well, that’s Brahmacharya, to me. See what you think:

When your posture is imbalanced,

the practice is physical;

balanced asanas lead to spiritual practice.

As a goldsmith weighs gold,

you have to adjust your body so that it is

perfectly balanced in the median plane.

As pearls are held on a thread,

all the limbs should be held

on the thread of intelligence.

Yogis, what’s your experience with Brahmacharya in your own practice? Leave a comment, please!

*Dear Everyone I Knew During This Time: I’m really, really sorry. 

**Off-topic, but I’m reminded of Office Space. “If you want me to wear 37 pieces of flair like pretty-boy Brian over there, why don’t you make the minimum 37 pieces of flair.”

Santosha- Happiness as Moral Obligation

So we arrive today at the second of the “moral restraints” of yoga, the niyamas. This one is Santosha, or contentment. For information on the first of the niyamas, click here. For more information on what all this is about anyway, click here


I love this smiling picture of my beautiful friend Joy visiting NYC. While meditating with closed eyes in the park there, she was (joyfully? heh) surprised to find that all the people she could hear sounded happy. 

Recently I ran into an old co-worker, who suggested that I return to work with her in order to have a more financially stable lifestyle. “You know,” I said, “I really wasn’t happy there. I’m happy now.”

I recounted the story to another friend, who said to me, thoughtfully: “Are you happy now?”

This was sort of the conversational equivalent of running into an invisible wall. I stopped short and thought. Am I happy, really? Well, actually, in the past few weeks, I haven’t been acting very “happy.” I’ve been quite worried about some stuff, and I’ve forgotten to appreciate the things that are so very wonderful about my life (and there are quite a few).

Nischala Joy Devi, in her book The Secret Power of Yogasays, “Some of us are open naturally to joy, while others need to cultivate it more carefully.” I am the latter. Whether it is chemical or conditional, my default response over the course of my life has been to see the glass as half-empty. I’ve come to believe that this is not a terrible thing- it’s something to live with, like having a birthmark, or being right-handed. Like many others, I just have a natural tendency to dwell on the shadow side of life a little more heavily. My yoga and meditation practices work to create new thought patterns that are more positive, but 30+ years of conditioning are a lot to overcome. So it’s not always a picnic, but I work with it.

Santosha, the second of Patanjali’s Niyamas, or moral observances, asks that we observe contentment:

When at peace and content with oneself and others (Santosha), supreme joy is celebrated.     -Yoga Sutras 11.42

When I find myself slipping into old patterns of depression, anxiety, self-doubt and worry, I am generally subscribing to the belief system that if something were just different in my life, I could be happy. Past experience (and logic) tell me that this is not true. Relying on external objects or experiences for fulfillment can only lead to more suffering, since they are temporary. Instead, in Santosha, I practice remembering that everything is basically okay already. Even when the circumstances aren’t what I would like.

In true freedom and happiness we like whatever we do, but we do not always do whatever we like. -Swami Nirmalananda

This might be a challenge to buy into, but I believe that it is perhaps the most important thing I can do at this stage in my life. The Dalai Lama suggests in his work The Art of Happiness that not only is it nicer to be happy, but that it is an ethical obligation!  When I consider how much nicer I  am to be around when I am happy- how much more present, loving, kind and compassionate I am for my students, my family and friends, and even strangers, it is selfish NOT to strive for contentment, joy, and happiness.

Seeing Santosha as an unselfish practice is what makes it work for me. Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist imprisoned by the Nazis in WWII, said “Man is ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as long as he can see meaning in it.” This really resounds with me. Yes. I can take on this work of cultivating happiness, the pain of challenging situations, with gratitude when I remember that doing so is for a greater good.

I am at my weakest state, mentally and emotionally, late at night and first thing in the morning. Sometimes I wake up feeling pretty unhappy. For the last month, as I wake up, I’ve made my first thoughts the following:

  • I have important work to do that helps others
  • I cannot do this work, I cannot help others, while I am caught up in despair
  • My time is limited and I will do my best not to waste it wallowing in unhappiness

To return to the question at the beginning of this post- Am I really happy now? The answer, my friends, is yes. Do I always remember that I am happy? That’s the trick, isn’t it? No. But I know the work I need to do and I am committed to finding my way to a more stable state of Santosha. Then, perhaps, the real (more interesting) work can begin.

A poem for you:

Like Barley Bending, by Sara Teasdale

Like barley bending

In low fields by the sea,

Singing in hard wind



Like barley bending

And rising again,

So would I, unbroken

Rise from pain;


So would I softly,

Day long, night long,

Change my sorrow

Into song.

Saucha: Rediscovering Purity

This is the first of (probably) five posts about the niyamas, or moral restraints of yoga. You can get more information on the niyamas and their place in the eight limbs of yoga here

nuances-8_lLove, if it is love, never goes away.
It is embedded in us,
like seams of gold in the Earth,
waiting for light,
waiting to be struck.

-Alice Walker, Even So

The first of the niyamas, Saucha, is translated as purity. This may not excite you. I understand. “Purity” smacks of things too wholesome to maintain, like chastity, white Communion dresses, or a starch-free diet.

Thankfully, we’re given a bit of leeway as far as interpretation- and I’m willing to take it.

Sure, I bet Patanjali was suggesting we should strive for purity in lots of things. I do feel better when I eat less processed food, exercise regularly, maintain my meditation practice, refrain from gossip, spend less time on YouTube or Facebook. These are important parts of Saucha, and I don’t want to take away from them- but you can probably read enough about them elsewhere.

For my own practice, I’ve been inspired by the way Deborah Adele interprets Saucha in her book The Yamas and NiyamasShe suggests that Saucha “has a relational quality that asks us not only to seek purity in ourselves, but to seek purity with each moment by allowing it to be as it is.” In other words, we are asked NOT to “change, criticize, alter, control, manipulate, pretend, be disappointed, or check out.”

What does this look like in your daily life? It might be harder than that starch-free diet. It means  accepting heavy traffic (and other drivers) on the way to work without needing it to change. It means talking to your friends without wishing they’d act or speak differently- even when they themselves are acting with a lack of purity! It means, most difficult of all, that we accept ourselves and our lives just as they are- without needing to be skinnier, friendlier, happier, more patient, or anything other than just ourselves, as we are, in the present moment.

It means that we flush away the storyline, lose the interpretation, unwrap the layers of conditioning and fear and just practice being ourselves.  At our hearts, at our deepest layer, the foundational core of us, we are already pure. As Alice Walker’s beautiful poem says, “love is embedded in us, like seams of gold…waiting to be struck.” When I add on my stuff- my stories, my need to appear a certain way, my need for things to work out in my favor, I’m just muddying things up.

Eckhart Tolle, in his recording Deepening the Dimension of Stillnesscaptures this nicely. “You don’t need to remember who you are to be yourself,” he says, speaking of the tendency we have to label ourselves with the roles we play- mother, teacher, depressed person, vegetarian. “You can be yourself without any story… you are more fully yourself when you are not remembering the story.”

I’ve been actively practicing this for a few days. As with so many of these practices, it started with an awareness. I found myself caught up in a story of my own- I actually sensed myself putting on a role, like a jacket. It wasn’t quite so simple as, “OK, now I’m going to feel sorry for myself and act depressed,” but, crazy as it sounds- it was not that far off. I was able to see it happening and notice what (unflattering, so I won’t list them) behaviors went with it. And although I was not able to completely shrug off the story at that moment, I know that my awareness helped me to leave it behind more quickly than I have in the past. ‘Who am I underneath this?’ I asked myself (yes, I actually did talk to myself). ‘I don’t need to do this at all.’ And picturing Alice Walker’s gold vein, unstruck within me, I recalled my pure value.

At the same time, however, Saucha demands that I not chastise myself for these moments of role-playing, story-writing, forgetting our true value. Yeah, I am unconditional, pure love- but I am also a fully functional creative human being. There will be moments of grief, of anger, or frustration, or nausea or a broken leg and all of the potential suffering that goes with these. If I practice purity, I allow these things to happen, not needing to change them (!) and know they will pass.

Perhaps my favorite part of Deborah Adele’s interpretation of this topic is a quote from Matthew Sanford, who speaks from the experience of an accident that left him paralyzed from waist down: “I am not afraid of my sadness. My sadness is an incredible gift that allows me to be with people who are suffering without trying to fix them.” What a gift indeed, to accept without needing to change. To love without needing to interfere. To learn to be uncomfortable together, and then to find comfort in this way.

A last bit of a poem to illustrate:

David Whyte: Enough

“Enough: These few words are enough.

If not these words, this breath.

If not this breath, this sitting here.

This opening to the life

we have refused

again & again

Until now.


Until now.”

Photo credit: paul bica / / CC BY

Learning to Let Go: Aparigraha in Action

Her only crime? That she loved (the hippo) too much.

What are you attached to?

Family, and your friends. What about possessions- your car, your house- shoes, jewelry? Yoga pants? Perhaps you’re attached to your ideas- as a Democrat, or a Republican. Or your defined image of yourself as a certain person- yogi, Christian, vegetarian.

What happens when the attachment is severed or threatened? A loved one dies. Your possessions are stolen, or broken- or you can no longer afford them. Your ideas are challenged as you discover new truths. Or you find that you can no longer sustain the image of yourself that defined you.

This, according to Buddhism,* is the cause of all human sorrow. Attachment causes us to suffer. If we become un-attached, we will cease to suffer. It’s simple. And yet so hard to do.

Aparigraha, the fifth of the yamas, is “non-grasping.” At its simplest, it invites us to let go of those possessions that we cling to. And it has a lot in common with asteya, (non-stealing), in that it asks us to trust in the abundance of the universe.

It gets a little trickier when we start dealing with non-material things. ‘What about my family,’ you may think. ‘I don’t ever want to not love people.’ Right. Aparigraha is not about becoming DE-tached, or cold. It means that you accept things as they are in the present moment- to enjoy them, to love them with a whole-hearted generosity, and then be willing to let go when you have to.

No, it’s not easy. Let’s face it, it’s not always easy to let go of material possessions, let alone a loved one.That’s why (as with any moral law) it is best to start small. We can build up to the big stuff.

So, if you’re just starting to work with the concept of non-attachment, or if you’d like to refresh yourself, here’s an exercise for you.

Find a drawer or a closet, or (if that is too overwhelming), a box that needs to be cleaned up. Look at each item with fresh eyes. Do you need it? Can someone else make better use of it? If you feel like you can’t bear to be rid of something, put it in a box and mark your calendar to revisit it in 6 months. At that point, if you haven’t used it, or thought about it during that time, you may be more willing to let it go.

You’ll find that you’re letting go of more than just stuff here. Your material possessions are symbols of the ideas and concepts that you’re clinging to, as well. Those jeans that are too small? They might represent an outdated image of yourself. If you’re reluctant to part with an item, close your eyes and look at the “suffering” that you are feeling. What are you really clinging to?

It feels good to clean up the clutter and junk in our lives. We’re freeing ourselves of things- which gives us more physical space- but we’re also cleaning up our attachments, so that we have more emotional and mental space.

This week, as I’ve talked about, written about, and examined my own relationship to aparigraha, I’ve had the opportunity to notice a few things about myself that might be true for you as well.

  1. Aparigraha in Language. “Hang on,” I say to my friend, who’s going through a tough time. “Hang in there.” Our language itself advises us to cling. Instead, if we can soften the grip and fall away a bit, the pain might be less. I am not going to start saying “Let go,” instead- but I think I’ll free myself of the clingy language.
  2. Emotion and Aparigraha– for me, defensiveness is a sign of clinging. For example: in the last few months my iPhone has been functioning less and less well, becoming frustratingly slow. Several people have suggested that I delete some of my music- do I really need to carry around 3000 + songs? I actually found myself feeling snappy and irritable toward these well-meaning folks. “NO, it’s not the music!” I said. That defensiveness even felt tight and “clingy” in my chest- a sign that something was not right.  I have since cut down on the music, and the phone does run faster again- but as I started to remove songs, I felt a bit concerned that someone might need to listen to something, like a Barry Manilow Christmas song, or the theme song to the cartoon show Hamtaro** and I won’t have it all queued up and ready to go. What’s my deal? See #3.
  3. Layers of Attachment– Why on earth do I need all of these songs?! It turns out that I  am attached to an idea of myself as someone who has an amusing or appropriate song at the ready. I hoard music, I think, because there was a time in my life where I didn’t have access to the popular stuff. At the dawn of the MTV era, cable TV was not a priority in my house, and so I always felt a bit uncool and out of the loop.

Aparigraha in action isn’t easy. None of the moral guidelines are. Perhaps that’s why we need them- doing the wrong thing is so often easier, at first, that we need rules, laws, to help us to do the thing that is temporarily harder, or at least less satisfying, so that we can experience a more permanent sense of happiness.

The last five weeks have been eye-opening as I researched and deepened my understanding of the yamas in order to share them with you. Thanks for your readership, friendship, and insightful comments throughout the process. I have to confess, I’m a bit attached to all of you.

*Wait, aren’t we talking about yoga? Yes, but Buddhism and Yoga share the same root system, and Buddhism says this awfully well. 

**An anime show featuring a wise pet hamster who loves sunflower seeds and helping out his schoolgirl owner. “Little Hamster, Big Adventures!” 

An Elegy For the Ants in my Car

I am murdering a colony of teeny tiny ants in my car.

I’m not sure how it started. We always have ants around the house (it is Florida)- but I’m surprised that I managed to bring in enough to start a whole civilization. It was probably beneficial that there must be enough Nature Valley granola bar crumbs under the driver’s seat to feed them for a year. (Why can’t Nature Valley get a handle on the crumbliness of their granola bars? But I digress).

For a little while it was not a big deal. I was willing to let the little guys crawl around the car. Occasionally one would climb on me and I would manage to not be too bothered by it. They don’t bite, or sting, or do anything except walk around, so although I wasn’t really thinking the whole thing through too clearly, I hoped we could manage some kind of peaceful co-existence.

Then, sometime in the last week, there was some sort of population explosion (I think it was around the time a Kong dog toy with some dog biscuit crumbs in it entered the car… long story). Suddenly, I had enough ants in my car (let’s call it “Antopia”) to populate the cars of most of my acquaintances. I could no longer ignore the fact that this was a problem. At some point, someone else was going to need to sit in my car with me, and it seemed a bit much to ask that they tolerate my pest problem in the name of non-violence.

…and frankly, the situation was becoming a bit of a nuisance. While I was still (mostly) willing to turn the other cheek, I occasionally found myself squashing one, almost idly, almost instinctually. No, I am not proud.

What the #%$ do you do in a situation like this? These poor ants didn’t have a choice about where they made their home- if anything, the fault was mine. I provided them with shelter and food, allowing them to blossom. Now, I was unwilling to tolerate their presence and so, they had to die.

It’s a ridiculous situation, but it’s been unpleasantly enlightening. When I inspect my earlier feelings on the ant situation, I realize that I had sort of hoped they’d die on their own, as it would be convenient for me not to have to murder them. My husband suggested that I clean out the car, which would (cue the ominous music) “take care of the problem.” At first glance, this seemed like a good idea. But wait: it’s still killing the ants, isn’t it? Whether I Windex them into oblivion or starve them by removing the Nature Valley crumb hoard, they’re going to die.

I came to the conclusion that I must face the task honestly. Before I drove to class this morning, I put some ant killer on cardboard and left it in a little cubbyhole under the radio. That tiny dab of clear poison glistened and winked at me all the way to St Lucie West, as though to say (in a smooth, oily voice), “Don’t worry, honey, I’ve got the situation under control.”

By the time my classes ended, and I returned to my car, the ants had discovered the poison and were forming mad lines to transport it back to their (condo? hive? lair?) living quarters.

I feel lousy. Yeah, it’s just ants. But HARMLESS ants. And a brilliantly big metaphor for the difficulties of really living a non-violent life. It was easy to hope they’d die alone. It would have been easier to look the other way as I vacuumed the car (which, don’t worry, I’ll do anyway). Life, and compassionate choices, are a lot harder when they are crawling all over your car.

I’m not a total sappy idiot. I know one can’t live a completely innocent life, devoid of harm to others. We have to find a line that we are willing to draw for ourselves, and sometimes it’s pretty arbitrary. The decisions that we make are often contradictory, and confusing. Maybe you buy organic to be kinder to the earth- but what about the local farmer whose business is suffering? You eat vegan, but the clothes you wear are manufactured in a third-world country by underpaid laborers in poor condition. I’m not starting a fight, or even a discussion, really- just saying, it’s damn HARD to make kind decisions day to day.

And some days, the decisions make me sad. Some days, the best thing you can do is face the decision head on and say, at least I didn’t look away from it. I lived with the ants, I killed the ants, and soon, I vacuum up dead ants.

Thanks for reading, friends.