Study of the Yoga Sutras: Yama Experiment

My home is filled with light, space and windows opening to the trees outside.  On the surface, there is not a lot of stuff, and you might even think my home is a bit empty.  But, in the spirit of satya, Sanskrit for truth, let me describe what is really going on beneath the surface – hoarding.  The term brings up such negative images.  In my mind’s eye, there is this little person, namely me, surrounded by a mountain of papers – often electronic – climbing high overhead into a canopy that blocks out the light and air.  On a feeling level, just the word, hoarding, makes my throat constrict, my chest hurt, and my stomach flip flop.  And then the internal voice steps in with more satya – hmmm, what about all the pictures, clothes, the camping equipment, the “stuff” just sitting around waiting to be dealt with  — until it becomes much easier not to deal with any of it.  After all, the “stuff” is neatly placed out of sight.  But, the fact is that there has been a fairly constant shadow lurking in the background, taunting me about this accumulation.

With this backdrop, it was easy to adopt aparigraha, a restraint on nonhoarding, as my focus for our yama experiment in the Axis Yoga Teacher Training Program (YTTP).  My approach was to start by reviewing the main sutra on aparigraha in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Sutra II.39, and follow through with the following experiment:

Daily 5 minute reading/reflection on Yoga Sutra II.39

Daily clean out of ‘something’ for 15-30 minutes

Daily recording of attention and insights around each activity

Q: whether more balance and acceptance results from the Experiment.

Sutra Review
There were some surprises from reviewing Sutra II.39 Aparigrahasthairye janmakathamta sambodah, the main sutra describing aparigraha (emphasis added via italics).

Iyengar’s interpretation is that: “When one is steady in living without surplus possessions and without greed, one realizes the true meaning of one’s life, and all life unfolds before one.”  He also comments that aparigraha means not only non-possession and non-acceptance of gifts, but also freedom from rigidity of thought.  Prabhavananda/Isherwood comment that “[a]ttachment, and the anxiety which accompanies attachment, are obstacles to knowledge.” Desikachar observes: “The time and energy spent on acquiring more things, protecting them, and worrying about them cannot be spent on the basic questions of life.”   And there is an additional point of emphasis in Sutra II.39 that Prabhavananda/Isherwood capture most succinctly:  “[f]reedom from attachment will result in knowledge of the whole course of our human journey, through past and future existences”.

Anxiety accompanying attachment, rigidity of thought, and the loss of time and energy needed to delve into the basic questions of life – each clanged with familiarity.   What was the attachment all about?  At least in part, my depression-era parents struggled with providing, and their dream was to ensure their children went to college and succeeded—often in material terms.   Rigidity of thought – for me, this had a great deal to do with misplaced notions of perfectionism – not being good enough without very intense effort, which meant keeping resources ‘just in case’ and working something to the Nth degree.  And the loss of time and energy needed to delve into the basic questions of life – well, this was at the root of the anxiety from hoarding.  Without delving into the basic questions of life on a consistent basis (and making regular choices based on this inquiry), I have been left at times feeling the anxiety of leading a superficial life.

Results of Yama Experiment
Initially, I was aggravated while thinking about the range of stuff to deal with in the course of this Experiment.  So much stuff.  Having been down this path before, it was clear the clean out portion of the Experiment needed focus.  Otherwise, my tendency would be to spin around like a top trying to tackle everything at once.  And, as we know, a spinning top eventually falls over.  So I tackled my emails, numbering over 600 (in one account).   After some initial angst, it became relatively easy to deal with the emails on a daily basis.  This meant giving up the illusion that I needed to keep emails in my Inbox to make sure I read them or organized them into the ‘right’ folders.  Given the daily focus on this yama, eventually I reached (and have maintained) all accounts at essentially a zero balance.  On a purely practical level, the Experiment has produced results.  And there have been some other practical realizations.  I rarely add to the “stuff” on a material level – in fact, this shift was happening even when I was earning a good living.  Currently developing a private legal practice (and without a full slate of clients), it has been very easy – actually freeing — to pass on more “stuff”.  And, I consciously accept that the rest of the “stuff” in my home will be dealt with in good time – just like the emails.  Bottom line: more balance and acceptance arose in the course of completing the Experiment.  A side note:  being rather ‘this-worldly’ and practical, I did not feel a personal charge from Sutra II.39’s emphasis on learning about one’s past, present and future lives from mastering this yama.   But, it came up for reconsideration later as we expanded the Experiment.