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What is 'non-attachment' in Yoga?

What follows are my opinions alone and do not reflect the views of the other teachers at the studio. My goal with these blogs is to promote independent thought. I am not claiming to be right and others wrong. Education doesn't work like that. It involves questioning what we think is correct and being open to challenging our so-called wisdom (remember this line at the end of the blog!).

Yoga can sometimes foster a dogmatic culture, where blind agreement with ancient texts by self-proclaimed incarnations of Shiva is expected. However, I have always viewed yoga as a process of self-discovery that encourages independent thinking.

Allow me to share a Zen story before we proceed:

A renowned scholar once visited Zen master Nan-in to learn about Zen. The scholar boasted of his extensive knowledge of Buddhist sutras. As they sat together, the scholar spoke at length, displaying his expertise. Nan-in listened patiently and then suggested they have tea. He poured the scholar's cup, and as it filled, he continued pouring until it overflowed. Unable to contain himself, the scholar exclaimed, "Master! The cup is full! It can hold no more!"

Smiling, Nan-in replied, "Just like this cup, you are filled with your own opinions and speculations. How can I teach you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

Now, let's delve into the topic at hand.

In the Yoga Sutras (a foundational text on Yoga), the celebrated sage and author Patanjali lays the groundwork for the much discussed and dissected concept of non-attachment.

In Aphorism 1.15 of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali discusses the concept of non-attachment or vairagya. The aphorism is typically translated as follows:

"Freedom from attachment comes from the cultivation of indifference to the objects of pleasure or pain, by training the mind to remain undisturbed in all circumstances."

The general understood meaning of this aphorism - "Patanjali suggests that by developing a sense of indifference or non-attachment towards objects of pleasure or pain, one can attain a state of freedom. This non-attachment allows the mind to remain undisturbed and unaffected by external circumstances. It is seen as a way to liberate the mind from being bound by desires, attractions, repulsions, and the fluctuations of pleasure and pain"

Now my opinion(s) - .

Vairagya, second only to dhyana in prominence, is one of the most misunderstood ideas in yogic philosophy. It generally translates to 'non-attachment' or 'detachment' and aims to free the mind from the shackles of fear, attraction, repulsion, pleasure, and pain. It is crucial to clarify that vairagya does not necessitate creating a world devoid of attachments, as commonly misconstrued. Like any philosophy, its interpretation varies. However, Patanjali's notion of non-attachment is frequently misapprehended in yoga communities.

I have come to understand that non-attachment means we should not depend on specific things as the sole source of our happiness. If we do, there is a risk of becoming excessively attached. However, this is a cautionary reminder rather than a religious commandment. If we interpret non-attachment directly as a commandment, does that mean being attached to my spouse is wrong? Patanjali would argue that it is only wrong if it leads to an unhealthy attachment that results in suffering. He would ask whether both individuals are independent and capable of surviving without each other. The answer is yes. We managed to navigate life before we met, so we can survive independently (though it may not be ideal!). Love is not attachment. When our happiness is entirely dependent on another person, we dangerously attach ourselves to them, which can become a source of suffering. Furthermore, such attachment does not represent true love; it signifies possession.

In 1923, the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran wrote in his renowned work, The Prophet: “Let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but do not bind each other in love. Let it be a moving sea between the shores of your souls....."

Non-attachment does not demand literal detachment. Being attached to certain people and things does not mean opposing Patanjali's yoga. Patanjali does not discourage us from enjoying life; he simply advises against making our life and happiness dependent on external factors. This process is not immediate but rather a lifelong journey. Patanjali suggests that our unhappiness, disillusionment, sickness, and high stress levels stem from an unhealthy attachment to things and people. We rely on these external factors for our sanity and have developed an unhealthy attachment to specific emotions. Gorakhnath famously said, "Die, O Yogi, die." If we fear death, we desperately cling to life and various attachments. By letting go of the attachments that have become our sources of happiness, we eliminate the fear of dying. Gorakhnath also said, "Die as a drop and become the ocean. The art of dying is the art of attaining absolute life." It is unrealistic to expect immediate detachment from all attachments in the West. Yet yoga is a lifelong dedicated practice—a sadhana, as they say.

To drive this point home, let's explore the story of Mulla Nasruddin, a wise fool from Middle Eastern folklore. Once, Nasruddin lost his ring in the living room, but he was found searching for it outside on the street. When asked why, he replied, "Because the light is better here." This story serves as a metaphor for our human tendency to seek happiness in external objects or people when the true source of joy and peace lies within us. Just as Nasruddin's search was misguided, we too can be misguided if we attach our happiness solely to external factors. Patanjali's philosophy of non-attachment reminds us to seek happiness within ourselves, rather than in the illusory brightness of the outside world. If we remain attached to life outside of us, do we miss the inner illumination and divine essence that resides within?

Kashmir Shaivism is often described as a "householder" tradition, emphasizing the recognition and expression of the divine in everyday life. It does not advocate for renunciation of the world or strict asceticism. In this tradition, non-attachment does not necessarily entail withdrawing from worldly affairs but engaging with them from a perspective of consciousness and presence.

In this context, non-attachment can be understood as a state of being fully engaged in life while remaining unbound by it. It involves fully participating in worldly experiences without being ensnared by desires, aversions, or the illusion of separateness. Non-attachment is about recognizing the divine presence in all things and experiences, transcending the limitations of the ego and the mind.

The great Swami Vivekananda emphasized that non-attachment meant performing one's duties without expecting rewards or results, serving humanity and God selflessly, without seeking personal gain. It is about attaining a state of freedom and equilibrium, independent of external circumstances. It is a state where our happiness and peace do not depend on external factors.

Vivekananda believed that non-attachment was a vital component of Karma Yoga (the path of action), where actions are performed selflessly, without attachment to their outcomes. This practice purifies the mind and facilitates spiritual growth.

In conclusion, non-attachment is not about renouncing the world or avoiding all attachments, including relationships and experiences. It is about living fully and intensely in the world while avoiding excessive desires for possession or fear of loss. Non-attachment can be seen as a state of freedom and consciousness where we actively participate in life but are not defined or limited by it.

Additional thoughts - In the search for understanding non-attachment, many people tend to gravitate toward a specific interpretation or commentary, firmly asserting their understanding. Yet, we should consider that non-attachment may encompass more than we are currently willing to comprehend, or it may hold less significance. It is intriguing to observe how individuals tenaciously cling to a particular translation or opinion on non-attachment, only to ironically become attached to someone else's interpretation. You may need to read that again. It's baffling.

The same phenomenon occurs in modern-day yoga classes. I have been to a class where the teacher has based her sequence on “non-attachment” (don’t ask). Yet stubbornly holds on to the beliefs and systems put in place by her teacher/guru.

Perhaps Patanjali foresaw the future of Yoga, where Western practitioners would become fixated and obsessed with specific schools of yoga and systems. Perhaps Patanjali's message is directed at all of us, urging us to maintain an open mind amidst the madness of the yoga world. "Don’t get too attached."

Zahir Akram - eternal seeker

If you're eager to delve deeper into the world of yoga, we invite you to explore our Yoga Teacher Training program. Whether you're starting from scratch with our entry-level 200-hour course or seeking advanced knowledge with our 300-hour course, our training equips you with the skills to become a certified yoga teacher. However, this journey isn't limited to aspiring instructors alone. If you share the same passion for learning and desire to expand your understanding of the art you adore, like me, then this course is perfect for you.

Embrace the opportunity to deepen your love for yoga.


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