Student Experiment: Overcoming Unhealthy Attachments

As part of Denver’s Axis Yoga teacher training program, students are asked to apply a yogic principle to their daily lives. This student chose to combine the yogic principle of Aparigraha (non-possessiveness, non-attachment) into her therapy sessions to begin to understand and overcome her attachments. She becomes aware of how her attachments are linked to her self-image and this acknowledgement helps her transform her thoughts and desires into a more positive outcome.

Overcoming Unhealthy Attachments: Introduction

When the task came to choose a yama with which to experiment, I was certain that Aparigraha was the right one for me. Over the past six months I have been working weekly with a therapist on overcoming many of my attachments to unhealthy parts of my past. Because breakthroughs in therapy have come in small increments, I saw the potential for greater growth if I was to combined a yogic philosophy of non-grasping, non-possessiveness, or non-attachment with a more western psychological approach to the same topic.  Thus, my question became: If I incorporate Aparigraha in my life will it complement or speed up the progress that I am attempting to make in therapy to overcome unhealthy attachments? Believing strongly that the answer to this question would be yes, my hypothesis was: By combining Aparigraha with my weekly therapy sessions aiming at the same outcome, I will usher in change with greater ease and speed than just using therapy to achieve the goal of non-attachment.

Overcoming Unhealthy Attachments: Experiment

With excitement in my undertaking and dedication to my personal growth, I set off with Desikachar’s words on my mind: “When we are attentive to our actions we are not prisoners to our habits”(Heart on Yoga p.6). My experiment happened in a rather linear style where I created a table highlighting a thought for which I was grasping, leading me to question why I desire that outcome and further, what affirmations can I raise to counteract those thoughts? A few examples from my experiment chart include:

A thought that has me stuck, grasping for an outcome.

Why do I desire that outcome?

What thought waves should I raise instead?

1. I need my house to be clean I like to maintain a good image of my space and myself. I take pride in my house. I have a beautiful home just as it is.
2. When I have a friend over for dinner I need my meal to be perfect. I see my meal as a reflection of myself. I can’t wait to enjoy a wonderful meal in the company of a great friend.
3. I want the woman that I am dating to contact me, I haven’t heard from her. I enjoy our communication, it’s reassuring to know that she’s thinking about me, and I have come to expect it. I am loved by me and that is fulfilling.
4. I feel as if I’m gaining weight and that my body doesn’t feel as good as it once did, so I want to loose weight I have not been exercising as much and therefore, I just don’t feel as fit as I like. I will practice self-love and treat my body with respect because she’s beautiful.
5. I am worried and nervous about sharing this work with my yoga peers. It feels vulnerable to share my thoughts on what I am working on (weaknesses) because I could be judged. I am a work in progress and by sharing and expressing myself I open up new opportunities for growth.

Overcoming Unhealthy Attachments: Reflections

As the experiment became more incorporated into my life, I was shocked to see just how many things were showing up on my chart, and I had no clue that so many of my thoughts were attached to needing to achieve an outcome. Many of the first rows, as exemplified in #’s 1 and 2, were filled with simple ideas that I could easily decipher on my own and create affirmations in response. But one of my thoughts had me in a quandary and in need of professional help. I took my body image thought, # 4, and chatted with my therapist about Aparigraha and my experiment. Intrigued, and open to my experiment she helped me achieve a better understanding of the root of my grasping.

After several conversations, guided meditation, and a large dose of self-compassion, I was lead to the discovery that the underlying possession I am attached to is my image itself. As I thought back on my chart and the times that many of these ideas came to me, I realized that most of my “grasping” came to me in the mornings as I lay in bed thinking about my day. Further, that these thoughts were attached to what I hoped to achieve or “show for” at the end of my day. It was true, my need to present an image of “perfection” to myself and to the outside world, had me in its grips. Driven by my ego and underscored by the stories I’ve retold to myself, I felt that by knowing what had me in its grips was exactly what freed me from them.

Overcoming Unhealthy Attachments: Conclusion

Thus, I can firmly say that as my experiment concludes, my question was answered and my hypothesis was accurate. By combining Aparigraha with my weekly therapy sessions aiming at the same outcome, I did usher in change (regarding my self awareness) with greater ease and speed than just using therapy to achieve the goal of non-attachment. Just brining a sense of awareness to my thought patterns hasn’t yet turned the need for presenting a “good image” off.  However, it helps me contextualize things in a more manageable way. And further, it gives me another chance to practice a complementary niyama, samtosa and further my contentment with my deepest thoughts.

Yoga Student Conducts Non-Experiment

As part of Denver’s Axis Yoga teacher training, students are invited to apply one of the yogic prinicples to their daily lives.  Students explore prinicples such as truthfulness and non-harming.  This particular student gives an honest account of how his selection and relationship to astaya (the principle of non-stealing) provoked so much defiance in him,  that his experiment became an examination of this resistance.

A Non-Experiment of Non-Stealing: Introduction

From the start I should have realized that there was no way I would implement an experiment on Asteya. First, I chose it because there was only one person in the group when we began forming groups. Choosing a particular spiritual practice because no one else is doing it is does not set oneself up for success.

 Secondly, I couldn’t really define it as being different from aparigraha. OK I could stop myself from recording music from the Internet as I assume that is technically stealing. But what else would I steal. Undeserved praise? That has never been an issue; in fact, I have always had the opposite problem of never taking credit for things that I actually did achieve.

 There were a few ideas I had that I could experiment with, but none of them compelled me. In fact I felt extreme resistance to any experimental ideas. I could have explored vegetarianism as a way of not stealing life from other creatures. I have been eating mostly vegetarian for the last couple months but I can’t say I have noticed any significant changes physically or emotionally. And I started that after thinking about it for a few months. And the more I thought about it for the experiment, the less interested I was in trying to remain vegetarian.

 I could also have implemented an environmental experiment as a form of not taking unnecessarily from nature. No single idea came to me for how to do this and I did not want to upset my routine too drastically to do this. Also, I could not see any great personal revelation coming from this.

 I did think about cutting down on TV and other things that “steal” my time. But the question is who decides what is a wise use of one’s time and what isn’t? Is every moment one is awake supposed to be leading toward something greater? Sometimes you do just need to watch something mindless on TV. It can stop the fluctuations of the mind! I am not ready to spend every free moment meditating, doing yoga, and reading ancient texts. The time commitment for the training is already enough “yoga time” for me right now.

 The fascinating thing for me as I continued to struggle with this and try to come up with an experiment was how much resistance I had to doing any experiment. I physically did not want to do an experiment. And I began to get even less and less interested in attending classes.

 So in a sense my experiment became reflecting on why I was not going to do an official experiment and why I was feeling such resistance.

A Non-Experiment of Non-Stealing: Refelctions Part I

I understand the basic concept of the yamas and the goal of reducing and ultimately eliminating desire. That makes some sense to me. I have become more aware of my desires as they pop up during the day from grocery shopping to how I spend my day, and I can see the constant cycle of desire.

But are all desires bad? What about my desire to learn more about yoga? If I didn’t have that desire, I wouldn’t be taking this training and I wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn new meditation practices, breathing techniques, and spiritual practices such as the yamas. Without desire, can one grow?

And is desiring pleasurable things inherently bad if they are not harming others in any way? I can understand not being attached to the experience of pleasure and getting stuck constantly striving for pleasure. However, pleasurable things can bring solace and help calm the mind and body. I don’t want to live in a world without the glory of Bach’s music or the pleasures of a crisp fall day or the hug of a loved one.

And how does one live without desires? Like a blank slate with no goals? Is life just a series of routines—purifications, pranayma, meditation, asana, sleep? If that is enlightenment, I am not sure I want it. What is the point of being a living human being with senses if all one is doing is trying to quiet or negate them. I don’t understand a divine spirit creating humans with the capacity to feel and sense the world and then asking them to not feel or sense the world. That just seems like a cruel joke.

A Non-Experiment of Non-Stealing: Reflections Part II

I understand the concept of restraint and thoughtfulness, but the yamas and the yoga sutras of Patanjali appear to me at this point to be more about negation. I don’t want to negate myself and my body, I want to live more fully into myself and my body. I want to be alive. And I can’t imagine that sense of aliveness by negating everything around me—my senses, my mind. Why be alive?

Yes, I understand from the yogic perspective that there is no “me” to live into. But I am not sure I quite buy into that. I whole-heartedly agree and try hard to live by the philosophy that we are all more similar than we are different, and that we are connected to the wider world and universe in ways that are hard to explain. But at the same time, we are all created physically distinct from one another with a wide variety of skills and talents that we can use to make the world a better place. Those skills and talents make us unique creations. So while I don’t believe in a strong “I” as completely separate from everyone and everything else in the world, there is an “I” that has unique gifts to bring to the world.

 Maybe I am just struggling with the approach of the yoga sutras that feels more focused on what separates us and how we are not to live. I would rather approach life searching for ways that we are connected and how we are to live. Connections are the things that matter, they are what unite us and bring us together. In fact, most of my life has been striving to find those connections rather than looking at what separates us. Maybe my mind set is just not appropriate for the classical yoga of Patanjali. Maybe I am just a tantric yogi at heart.

A Non-Experiment of Non-Stealing: Conclusion

So if I have any conclusion from my random thoughts concerning the yamas and Patanjali’s yoga sutras, my conclusion is that the process of yoga needs to be a natural, organic process. Just saying or thinking that one needs to work on one of the yamas, does not mean that it will actually happen. While the yamas are about freeing oneself from desires, one needs to have the desire to free oneself to actually make progress. And my assumption is that one rarely chooses which yama to address, rather a situation will arise that demands attention and challenges one’s beliefs which then leads to exploration and realignment of one’s attitudes and behaviors.