How to Use the Yoga Sutras to Tame Your Anxiety

The Yoga Sutras Were Perfected, Passed Down, and Finally Written

The Yoga Sutras is the first official yoga textbook that offers the complete sequential system of yoga (also known as Samkhya) as prescribed by the Sage Patanjali himself more than 2,000 years ago. To understand the lineage, keep in mind that this system had been passed down orally from student to teacher for 3,000 years prior to the penning down of The Yoga Sutras. By the time yoga reached the Sage Patanjali, generations of devout practitioners dedicated their lives to the study of yoga, which would later be enumerated in the yoga sutras. Why were they so committed to this practice?

Back in the Day, There Was No “Medicine”

Yoga was first created and propagated at a time when psychotherapy and Western medicine did not exist. Yet anxiety and suffering did. Humans have always been anxious because that is how our brains developed evolutionarily in response to predation and threat. That is why humans have a negativity bias. We remember all that went wrong and focus on all that can go wrong in order to survive. But we are no longer just surviving.

Anxiety is a crucial component to our ability to remain alive in order to be able to procreate, protect and raise young, and ultimately keep offspring alive until their sexual maturity. Imagine what the outcome would have been if people just relaxed in the face of danger? That response would have opened people up to predation and death. Without anxiety, the nervous system would fail to become aroused. In turn, stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline would not be released and humans would not have been able to run and escape danger. They would have been hunted to extinction.

The Science of Happiness: Rewriting Your Stress Response

We Remember Bad Things As A Survival Mechanism

We remember bad things as a survival technique to keep us from repeating dangerous choices and to think about how to make more prudent choices in the future. Anxiety helps us think about what went wrong in the past so that we can imagine what could go wrong again, thus preventing it from taking place. Unfortunately our minds often intensify and worsen memories, making false and exaggerated stories up in an attempt to prevent us from getting hurt again. Instead of preventing us from getting hurt, anxious memories cause tremendous suffering.

People can have the same intense arousal response to a perceived threat similar to a real threat, such as a phone ringing or an email sounding in their inbox. Without anxiety, we might forget about threats altogether yet with anxiety we often confuse how threatening things truly are.


Danger Danger Everywhere

Our minds also don’t know how to tell a big threat such as a bear attack apart from a minor one, like our child crying out after falling down. This inability to discern danger from mere disturbance means that most people feel anxious a lot. Especially in our modern times where constant connectivity, social media, traffic, caffeine, busy schedules, and loud, bright environments cause our nervous systems to be on constant high alert.


Yoga as One Solution to Anxiety

The yoga sutras offer a solution to the issues associated with anxiety. Though I will qualitatively say that for some people yoga and meditation are not enough. Some people need mental health treatment, sometimes in conjunction with western medicine. Yoga is not a substitute for mental health care. The yoga sutras can help diminish anxiety as well as enable practitioners to learn about their anxiety patterns and reactions to it. That means some people would absolutely benefit from a multipronged approach including mental health services, western medicine, and yoga. Remember that when the Sutras were written yoga was the only solution available.

Yoga and Anxiety

young woman practicing yoga on the beach

The ultimate effect of following the path laid out by Patanjali is to experience the effortless, indivisible state of the seer.
-B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, P.3

The Yoga Sutras say that yoga means union and that yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. If the mind is at rest and able to be at one with all that is, there is nothing to distract and cause worry. To be the seer, or the one that witnesses, means that we have gotten to the first division of the Yoga Sutras: Duality.

Purusha and Prakriti: The Witness Watching Nature

Purusha is a Sanskrit word used to describe consciousness, also known as the seer, the witness, and the one that is watching the world unfold. Each person has, at the root of their being, a pure consciousness (purusha) with which to observe the world. When anxiety hits, we think that we are our bad thoughts. “I am nervous. I am stressed. I am afraid.” Purusha is not the thought. When you zoom out and watch your thoughts, the thing watching them is purusha or pure consciousness. Once you see that you are watching your thoughts, you know you are not your thoughts. This is the dual nature of purusha and prakriti.

Prakriti means nature, and like the nature of all things, it changes. Thoughts are prakriti. Your body is prakriti. The weather is prakriti. Everything else is prakriti except consciousness. Purusha is always there. When we tap into it we can observe, witness, and see nature as it unfolds.

How to Balance Yourself by Understanding the Three Gunas

The three gunas follow Purusha and Prakriti in the Yoga Sutras, and therefore are secondary in importance to them. The Three Gunas are Tamas which means inertia, stuckness, and non-change. Rajas means change, movement, or transition. Satva means being, existing, and goodness.

You can recognize tamas when you feel stuck doing the same thing over and over. For example, people often feel stuck in bad habits. Think of what it feels like to go home after work and just sit and watch TV every day. You may enjoy it in the moment, but that kind of behavior will hold you in place and keep you from realizing your potential. It can be anxiety provoking you to look in the mirror and think, “How can I be stuck like this?” Yet, the awareness of your state of Tamas can help you to get moving again. Then, the gunas may braid and another feeling becomes dominant, Rajas.

When Rajas is the dominant strand, it feels like everything is changing. A common example is the transition from summer break into the academic year. It is often signaled by a change in the weather, more wind, less heat, and shorter days. It can mean that it’s time to get to work and create a rhythm in your schedule. It can be anxiety provoking you to move from a time of leisure to a time of hard work. Sometimes our minds race and our sleep becomes disturbed. This shift is also temporary. Therefore, if transitions bring out your anxiety, know it won’t be this way forever.

The Gunas will eventually braid the thread of Satva on top. This is the state you feel when you are neither stuck nor transitioning. It is a state of being in the flow. This is a time after the shift into a new academic year when the rhythm of work, family, and extracurricular are all known. This is a time of ease and comfort.

Satvic states are required to reach higher states of consciousness. They are not better than the other states because each of these three strands make up nature of life as we know it. Without Rajas, we would never have the impetus to move into a flow state. Without Tamas, we would never be able to stay long enough to enjoy the ride. All three Gunas are needed to experience life as a human.

Introduction to Yoga Sutras

Exploring the Yogic Path

Practicing Self-Restraint &
How to Identify Your Patterns

In one article, there is not room to describe the entire Eight Limb Path of Yoga that follows the Gunas in the Yoga Sutras. Let’s conclude with the first Limb: The Yamas: Self Restraint Practices.

Yamas- Self Restraint Practices

The Yamas are Self restraint practices that make up the first limb of yoga. They translate to: non-harm, non-lying, non-coveting, non-stealing, and moderation. Let’s break them down as they relate to anxiety.

Non-harm/Ahimsa: Anxiety can be harmful when it goes unchecked. So when we feel it rise up, we can decide to offer ourselves and others love. For example, anxiety may cause you to misinterpret someone’s quietness as them being rude. When, if you just apply some love and the philosophy of non-harm, you can clear the mental fog to be able to discern that they are not being rude, just quiet. You can then decide to try to connect with the person rather than assume they are unlikable. Applying love and non-harm can open you up to better connections and fewer negative assumptions about yourself and others.

Non-lying/Sayta: Have you ever been worried and made up a million worst-case scenarios in your mind? It’s human to do so! Next time you are worrying, ask yourself if the thoughts are factual. Pause to ask yourself, “Is this thought true?”  If your thoughts are not factual or helpful, you can let them go and, with it, your anxiety.

Non-stealing/Asteya: This restraint is less about stealing in a literal sense and more about a mentality of being okay with having what you have. It’s about not keeping up with the Jones’. When we wish we had what others possess, be it a car, relationship, or state of being, it can feel depleting and become anxiety provoking.

Nowadays with social media, it can feel like everyone else is taking amazing vacations and buying new cars. We naturally wish we had what they have. Coveting what others have makes us suffer. The Yamas offer an alternative to wishing we had what others have.

Additionally an attitude of contentment will bolster your ability to practice non-stealing. When you look at a Facebook photo of a friend smiling widely with their beautiful new spouse, rather than focus on what may be lacking in your loving relationships, focus on what is good about them.

Non-attachment/Aparigraha: Have you ever let go of something and doing so felt like freedom? Letting go of trying proving yourself is a mindset that is sure to take the pressure off and relieve anxiety. And what a relief it is.

Letting go of keeping up with others frees us. We can accept things as they are right now in the present moment.

Our happiness does not depend on needing anything to change. Such conditional thinking lacks love and allowance. It’s not that we don’t care about outcomes when we practice non-attachment, it’s that we do what we can and accept that there are external forces that will affect the outcome.

The Serenity Prayer is a perfect example of the non-attachment mentality: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,  Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.”

Moderation/Bramacharya: We may also feel anxious when we have too much or too little of something. A common example would be too much caffeine and not enough sleep. The practice of moderation regulates the body and mind which in turn, relieves anxiety. Are you beginning to see how living by the restraints of the Yamas may actually help you face your anxiety?

Try incorporating some of the yoga philosophy from the Yoga Sutras in your everyday life. Notice how doing so affects your awareness. Notice if you can lean on the yoga mindset to release you from suffering when you feel anxious.

The True Meaning of Aparigraha

article migration image true meaning of aparigraha jpg

I turned the corner onto my street, the street I have called home for the past three years, the one my son took his first steps in, where my daughter spent her first night in the world, where Christmas trees have come up and down, meals savored, and where laughter and crying have echoed through the hallways at all hours of the day. There, standing in my front yard, was the erected “For Sale” sign, signaling to ourselves as much as to everyone else in our community that we were done, we were letting go, moving on.

My heart broke the minute I saw the tall white sign in front of our little house on Placer. Not because it came as a surprise, but because suddenly I knew we were making a mistake. In reality, my husband and I had been talking about moving – to a new home, something bigger with more room, an expansive backyard, a new zip code – for years. Actually, it seems like we spent more time in our home talking about a new home than we did actually enjoying the space we were creating for ourselves and our growing family. Bookmarking houses on Zillow had become an addiction.

In fact, I had become so addicted to the thought of something new that I was completely oblivious to the reality in front of me. Like any addict, I was living in an altered state, one that was preventing me from seeing clearly the love, magic, and beauty of exactly where I was. The technological drugs I consumed were clouding my mind, offering me a constant drip of distractions. It was seeing my house officially for sale, cleaning it to prepare for showings, that woke me up and knocked me back into the reality I had been missing. But was it too late?

Offers were being made on our home, jobs being accepted out of state, apartment leases signed, boxes packed, all while my heart was flooding with regret.

Emotionally off kilter, I fled to my yoga mat, the one place that has consistently brought me peace and grounding for the past decade. I turned to sage advice, poring through the hand-written notes I had taken in the margins of books spouting eternal knowledge, everything from Patanjali’s Sutras to the Bible and, my other bible, Tina Fey’s Bossypants. While the Bible offered me inspiration and Bossypants offered a much needed laugh, it was in the Sutras that I found solace in the Yamas, the internal disciplines of yoga, particularly that of Aparigraha, or the practice of non-grasping, non-attachment.

Okay, I thought, as the final box was moved out of our home and into my parents’ truck. This is a practice; this is letting go. I will be alright, I reminded myself as I slid into the front seat of our family’s car. I have my children, my husband – everything I really need, everything that is really important, is coming with me. So we moved. Our house was still officially on the market with offers being made, but in my mind it was sold, the decision made. I was taking what I needed. Aparigraha was my bitch – I was rocking it hard.

Or, at least, like any egotistical, self-righteous idiot, that’s what I thought. Because, within a week of our big move, I was depressed. Depressed and anxious. Depressed and anxious and grumpy.

The Reality of Practicing Aparigraha

I kept saying, “This is an adventure! Make the most of it!” But no matter how hard I tried to “Aparigraha” it, I couldn’t shake the dark cloud that had moved over me, laying claim to my thoughts day in and day out.

Because family was still back home and because our “back home” home was still technically ours, we spent many weekends out of our new apartment and on the road. Each trip was an emotional rollercoaster for me. I was happy to be home but confused about the future. Would this be the last time we could open the front door of our house? What if we backed out? Could we still back out? What would people think if we did? What would I think if we didn’t?

Bittersweet isn’t exactly how I would describe what I was feeling. Each time we visited home, only to leave a day later to drive eight hours north, the taste became more bitter, sour even. But I was stubborn, repeating the mantra “Let Go” over and over, hoping to eventually crack whatever it was that was making it difficult for me to really accept all of the changes that were taking place.

Why is Aparigraha So Hard to Practice?

Still unable to shake the depression and anxiety that had befriended me at the New Mexico-Colorado state border, I dove deep into trying to better understand what practicing Aparigraha really meant. Is it really just letting go, detaching yourself? Or is there more to it.

I read what Nicolai Bachman had to say about the Yama, that by practicing Aparigraha, we discover why we were born. Or, less esoterically, he also says that the more we accumulate things the more time we have to spend maintaining said things, which means less time for internal development. Got it.

I tried to focus on the feeling of freedom, thinking that by leaving our home and our community we were on a path of new beginnings. I meditated on feeling light, no longer bound by old habits. I worked to open my eyes to what was before me, trying to soak in each and every new experience.

I’ll admit that it helped. That my days were more enjoyable. That I found reasons to smile and laugh. But at the end of the day, as I laid down to sleep, the depression would creep back in. I was still crying myself to sleep most nights, muffling the sound from my husband and children so they wouldn’t know how much I was struggling with these changes.

One day, while at my new job in Boulder, I came across a yoga video by Mara Branscombe called Aparigraha for Freedom and Abundance. Still on my quest to better understand this yogic principle, I put on my headphones and turned my attention to what she was saying. She explained it simply, so simply in fact that I didn’t register how profound her words really were. I came back to the video the next day and really heard her as she said, “Aparigraha is taking only what we need… taking only what serves us… letting go when the time is right. Aparigraha allows us to become more present by letting go of expectations.” I scrambled to find something to write this down on:

Let go of expectations. Let go when the time is right.

I finished what I was doing, tore out this page from my journal, and walked to the park behind the office. I sat for a long time in silence, contemplating these two sentences. I dropped into a place of mental stillness that had been evading me for months. As I settled in, I began to see images, screenshots of everything that was important to me: my children laughing, my husband smiling, spending time in nature, having long conversations with friends, making memories with family, my home. Yes, my home with its red front door, its stucco courtyard, the garden in the back that my husband built, the picnic table by our waterfall, the lights hung over our bed, the fireplace in our living room. I began to cry. And then I called my husband.

In the next 48 hours we were making a pilgrimage back to our home. Not to pack or clean, but to enjoy it. We made fires in our chiminea, ate meals outside, walked with the kids to the neighborhood park, took in the mountain views from our backyard. Finally, we were present together in its walls. Neither of us talking about what we need to do or what we should do, just enjoying the here and now. We listened to our kids laughing as they played chef in their bedroom. We took time to visit with neighbors. We fell in love all over again.

Discovering the True Meaning of Aparigraha

That night, as we decided to not sell our home, I finally understood what I needed to do to let go, to really practice Aparigraha. You could say that I had an awakening when it comes to understanding Aparigraha. I let go of the expectations others had placed on my shoulders. I let go of the burden I had given to myself. Instead of letting go of the wrong things, the things that really mattered, I allowed myself to let go of what didn’t.

Aparigraha isn’t about letting go of all things – it’s about letting go of the right things at the right time.

The art of the practice is finding space to think clearly enough to discern what needs to be held closely and what needs to be let go. In my case, I needed to let go of my ego, of my expectations of the big move. As I did, I found that I was clinging to something that wasn’t important – this new life I had imagined for myself – instead of fighting for what I really needed right now – my home and the community that comes with it.

Maybe one day it will be the right time to let go of my casita on Placer Drive, but I trust that until that moment comes, I will let go of the desire to change what is already so good. I will give up the drugs of overthinking and options, replacing the habit with long, deep sips of appreciating the present moment.

How to Practice Aparigraha on the Mat

Your yoga mat is a beautiful place to practice the art of “letting go”. Using your practice as a place to explore and investigate what you cling to and why is one of the most beneficial tools I have received from my decade of practice. For so many of us, our yoga practice becomes something that we get attached to (how it looks, how it makes us feel, etc.), rather than letting it be something that is truly supportive.

There is nothing wrong with having goals and milestones in your yoga practice, but be mindful of why those are there. How are they serving your well-being and that of those around you? When you can begin to allow your yoga practice to evolve daily, to allow it to ebb and flow with you through seasons of highs and lows, you are discovering the heart of Aparigraha.

Anytime I feel myself clinging to my physical practice, I turn to a softer, gentler form – like Yin. In doing so, I give myself the space and freedom to get to the bottom of what is really going on in my life. At the end of the day, your yoga practice is truly the best way to see your reflection.

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