The final foundational discipline of yoga is aparigraha or non-possessiveness. Looking at the roots of the words, we again have the a which means not, pari which means away from or fully, and graha which means take, obtain or seize. From these words you can see how we arrive at non-possessiveness as a possible translation. It would be wise to keep in mind that any and all translations are mere approximations, this goes for all the wisdom literature of the world. I read recently that 50% of the youth surveyed in a Harvard study thought Jesus spoke English. Yoga teaches us to find ultimate joy and peace within and prescribes a path to attain that though we can easily fall prey to fundamentalism.
The Path of Poverty
The popular vow of poverty is related to this discipline and there is a great history of choosing poverty as a path to spirituality. Have you ever noticed the tendency we have to be possessed by our possessions? This is the mental affliction that we intend to root out with the practice of aparigraha. There is no need really to give up your possessions in order to deepen your sense of spirituality, however, we must find a way to give up our attachment and identification with our possessions. I spent many years living an unspoken vow of poverty that did more to cultivate resentment and anger than any deeper sense of spirituality.
The entirety of yoga can be characterized by the yogic axiom, "action without attachment". Yoga doesn't really seek to regulate ownership but rather the attachment to the possession. This is a very important distinction also in the process of meditation where practitioners may feel that to meditate is to push thoughts out of your mind so it is “empty”…good luck! Try instead, to relinquish your attachment to the thinking process or specific thought forms. A Tibetan Master was with his student and the latter asked, "Master, what is the difference between my mind and the mind of the Master", the teacher replied, "When thoughts arise in this mind they are like clouds passing in the sky". This is a beautiful expression of detachment.
Attachment and Aversion - Two Sides of the Same Coin
I have certainly experienced both sides of the proverbial coin when it comes to possession and material wealth. Generating large amounts of wealth as a young person was a powerful experience and having a tendency towards self-awareness I could observe the power and beauty of new-found generosity. I could also see how more wealth lead to a greater identification with that wealth. Later, joining a spiritual community that did not overtly preach poverty but certainly lived in poverty showed me the other side of the coin. Living with unresolved debt and a general disengagement from the material side of life was an expression of a subtle aversion to money. Simply the other side of the same coin from attachment. To truly practice yoga is to be fully engaged with the world but detached from the world. Easy to say but not so easy to live.
Freedom from Greed
According to Swami Satyananda of the Sivananda lineage, “aparigraha represents complete freedom from greed or covetousness.” Many Native American traditions seem to naturally reflect a certain non-covetousness. These ancient cultures can offer tremendous guidance towards simplicity in our world that seems to grow more complex every single day. I once heard of a native tradition whereby every seven years each member of the tribe would place their possessions in the center of a circle where they would then be redistributed. This is a powerful example of a practice that would help inspire the character trait of non-possessiveness.
Take a moment now and consider the fact that the things in your life do not come from you but are a part of the natural abundance of life. Those things are temporary and will not survive the test of time. So too is your physical body impermanent. The practice of aparigraha ultimately supports us in conquering the deep-seated and perhaps ultimate fear of human life, the fear of death. As we practice relinquishing greed and attachment to the things in our life we also start to chip away at the attachments to the body and to our life itself. Great peace descends upon the one who is able to act without attachment. This great peace is the fruit of yoga.