Addiction, greed, resistance, fear, suspicion—much of the inner and outer conflict we experience in life is rooted in attachment. The yogic concept of attachment or raga, however, is often misunderstood. According to the Yoga Sutras (2.3), raga is one of five kleshas or afflictions that cause suffering. But releasing attachments doesn’t require withdrawing from the world and becoming a sannyasin. As a yoga student, you have the tools that will help you identify and go beyond attachments that limit your potential.
Think of the kleshas as counterproductive mindsets—all too often, we don’t even realize when they’ve boxed us in. This is because the source of all attachment, the ego, is like a blind spot that keeps us from recognizing our true nature. One of the aims of yoga is to lead us away from this false ego identity, a process of detaching (vairagya) that grants us healthy perspective. Here’s how some yoga practices help us break out of the box:
Self-inquiry. Svadhyaya, often translated as self-study, is one of yoga’s observances or niyamas, and helps us recognize the variety of ways raga plays out in our lives. The Indian saint Ramana Maharshi recommended that his students ask “who am I?” until, layer by layer, they release ego attachments to their identity (“I am a teacher” or “I am an American” or “I am a good person”) and see beyond to the true self. Svadhyaya also includes studying philosophy and texts such as the Sutras or Bhagavad Gita that illustrate the yogic path toward freedom.
Meditation. Through patience and trial and error, meditation trains us to detach from the mind’s busy-ness. We do this through dharana, working to concentrate on a single thing, such as the breath or a mantra. Dharana shifts naturally into dhyana (total meditative absorption) when the boundaries between the object and the self dissolve. The mind becomes quiet, and we become observers. By patiently returning again and again to the process of meditation, we strengthen our ability to practice vairagya in daily life, recognizing what pushes our buttons instead of reacting out of ego or attachment.
Pranayama. Even something as simple and natural as the breath can be a teacher. Before every inhalation, there must be an exhalation—a letting go. If you don’t fully release the old breath, there isn’t enough room for the new, the in-spiration. Slowing or extending the exhalation enhances the body’s parasympathetic responses, making it more easeful to stay longer in that place of letting go.
Asana. During asana, we become curious to our attachments to our physical bodies and play with our attachment to the earth, stretching against the limitations of gravity. Through inversions, backbends and other poses, we find more freedom in the spine. Even gentle or seated practices foster inner-contemplation that lead us toward self-inquiry, concentration, pranayama and samyama. Through asana, we detach from our daily routines and habitual thoughts about our bodies by moving in and out of postures with presence, curiosity and impartial investigation.
Abhyasa. Sutra 1.12 tells us that we need to combine vairagya (non-attachment) with abhyasa (dedicated practice) to go beyond the egoic mind and recognize true self. This sutra is the key everything we do in yoga, from a single pose to the process of meditation. When we practice with dedication and detachment, we even let go of expected results. It reminds me a little of the quote that’s been attributed to everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Vince Lombardi: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
Yoga isn’t a quick fix—the true magic of yoga is that it isn’t magical at all. Consistent and dedicated practice, joined with non-attachment, leads to freedom. And as we free ourselves from the attachments that make our lives smaller, everyone will benefit.
What yoga practices have helped you identify and release attachments? How has letting go of self-limiting attachments improved your relationships with friends and family?