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Letting go of attachments — YSP 1.15


1.15 drista anushravika vishaya vitrishnasya vashikara sanjna vairagyam

When the mind loses desire even for objects seen or described in a tradition or in scriptures, it acquires a state of utter (vashikara) desirelessness that is called non-attachment (vairagya). – translation by Swami J

Freedom from desires is achieved with intellect and control. – translation by Mark Giubarelli

The last couple of sutras were about abhyasa – persistence practice done with enthusiasm and devotion. That’s one half of Patanjali’s prescription for liberation. The other half is Vairagya and again, it’s one of those Sanskrit concept clouds that’s worth spending a little time exploring. Literally, the word means the drying up of the passion – vai (to dry, be dried) and raga (colour, feeling, passion, emotion, interest). It’s alternatively described as dispassionate, detachment, renunciation or non-attachment.

Non-attachment. In my culture, these words conjure up grim images of former Soviet bloc orphanages and sociopathic teenagers that murder their parents in their sleep. People are supposed to be ‘attached’.  “Attachment disorder” is a failure of a young child to form appropriate attachments to caregivers, frequently as a result of neglect, abuse, frequent change of caregivers, abrupt change in a caregiver and/or caregiver unresponsiveness to a child’s efforts to communicate. It’s horrific. All kinds of mental disorders and personality disorders arise from lack of attachment.

This ain’t what we’re talking about when yoga talks about cultivating non-attachment. Before I can wrap my head around ‘non-attachment”, I want to clear my head up about what I mean by ‘attachment’ and what the heck is wrong with it in the first place.  The English language has a lot of meanings attached to the word attachment. It can be a feeling of affection for a person or an institution. I’m attached to my cat. It can be a supplementary part or accessory. I have a new attachment for my sewing machine which does blind hems. It can be a binding or close social and emotional ties. I’m attached to my family. It’s a legal term whereby the property of one party can be attached or sold to satisfy a debt to another. Finally, attachment can refer to a cloying dependency, a relationship that is not within the best interests of one or more of the parties.

BINGO. This here is the attachment I’m talking about – a cloying dependency that is not within the best interests of one or more of the parties. In fact, it’s this aspect of attachment that elevates ‘attachment’ into one of the five poisons of the mind. For a quick refresher on the concept of kleshas, I offer this. One of these five poisons that colours our mind and thinking is raga and yes, that is the raga in vairagya.

Okay, raga translates to “attachment” and it’s not that “I like my kids/cat” sort of deep affection. Think of the stereotypic Hollywood stage mother who derives her personal identity through her child’s accomplishments. Regardless if the child wants to abandon the career path, the mother’s need to live through her child dominates. That’s the kind of attachment we’re talking about – unhealthy, damaging, causes suffering.

It doesn’t have to be a people attachment either. Looking at the extreme end of the scale, because it’s always easiest to see things when they’re magnified by a factor of 1000 – compulsive hoarding of things, food, animals are all ‘attachment disorders’ from a yogic point of view. An addiction is an attachment that’s about to burn the house down.

My teacher tells a great story about this. She had a bad day at work and on the way home, stopped into a little bakery and bought one of their delicious fresh out of the oven, warm and homey, cookies. It picked her up and she felt good and comforted. The next day, she stopped in and bought another. And the next day, and the next day. It’s now become habitual behaviour.

Soon, she realizes that she’s thinking about the cookies whenever she’s having an emotionally challenging moment. Bingo – there’s the attachment. It’s not the cookie. It never was the cookie. The cookie is just the vector. What’s driving the engine is the thinking around the cookie.

Having dealt (and continuing to deal) with my own addictions issues, I completely relate to this. It’s not the substance – it’s what my brain does with it. “I don’t have a drinkin’ problem; I have a thinkin’ problem” It was a huge mental breakthrough for me to get it through my head that the problem was not the substance – it was the attachment that was making my life unmanageable.

So for someone like me, cultivating non-attachment is literally life-saving. It gives me a way out. Cultivating non-attachment (vairagya) is how I moved myself from being a very heavy smoker (40+ cigarettes a day) to a non-smoker. And unlike a lot of ex-smokers, I have no cravings, no desires for cigarettes and haven’t since I quit. I remember occasions when I used to smoke but I have no desire for them now. Seeing other people smoke doesn’t bother me. Being around smokers doesn’t bother me (except for the smell…) It’s become an non-issue for me. The attachment to cigarettes is broken. I’m not an ex-smoker; I’m a non-smoker.

I have some other thoughts around the subject but I’ll leave them for later. This is a big concept in yoga philosophy and I could probably beeble on about it a lot more.

Thanks for reading and Namaste,




About Kate MacKay

I'm a certified Viniyoga teacher, in Fredericton, NB. I was a 9-1-1 operator and emergency services dispatcher for 22 years. Surprisingly, the two worked well together, or as I liked to put it, from the sublime to the ridiculous -- all in a day's work. I'm currently off work as a result of a stress-induced cardiac condition that's thrown a few crimps in my lifestyle. I'm not actively teaching yoga in the classroom right now and probably won't for several more months. That said, this blog is one of the forms of practice I can do and I thank you for joining me in this exploration of all things yoga.

4 responses »

  1. it’s fascinating how “attachment” is seen in the western culture! we don’t quite have this connotation. i do recall from an early age a similar term to “letting go” being bandied around a lot, under almost all circumstances. the word-for-word translation is “put/release it down”. older people would always say just put/release it down, and things will be ok. i suppose this is both common sense and yogic philosophy (and in theory they should match!)

    and btw, i’m pretty terrible at non-attachment, even though it makes complete sense to me. this may sound strange but one reason i’ve disabled comments on my blog is simply because the ego in me wants people to comment on my posts, to like my posts, etc etc. i know i’ll end up obsessively checking to see if anyone has visited, anyone has given any feedback. is cutting it out making the beast even hungrier? i don’t totally know, but at least i can focus on thinking through these things in the mean time. so at least, that’s my method right now. it’s a bit like “self-binding” in this article on procrastination: . will need to see if it works…

  2. Michael, as always, you are a blessing in my life. Thank you again. I’m fascinated by your comment that in your culture, ‘attachment’ has a different connotation. I’d love to hear more about that if you’re so inclined.

    Personally, I think we’re all terrible at non-attachment and like you, I have areas where I have to watch myself. I guess it’s part of what makes yoga practice(s) illuminating is that they bring our little personality quirks to the forefront.

    Thanks also for the New Yorker reference. I’m going to go read that now.

    Namaste my friend,


  3. hello kate! um, i haven’t done a thing except put random comments on ur blog! 😉 ahaha.

    i looked up the translation for “attachment” and though there are words that describe physical things attaching to each other, those particular words don’t themselves translate to the emotional attachment we are talking about. i was thinking of how i would translate the general concept in Chinese, and i suppose i would use “things we cannot put down”. it’s somewhat interesting that it’s a non-negative (is that what they call it?). non-attachment = put down in chinese, attachment = non-put down in chinese. i suppose hinduism/buddhism is pretty embedded in asian culture so the concepts weren’t too foreign to me when i started learning them again via yoga.

    other idioms and stuff that permeates general daily conversation:
    – if someone does us wrong, we sigh that “we owed them a debt from last life”
    – when justice is served, we say “the sky has eyes”
    – someone is unreasonably rushing, and we disparage them by saying they are rushing to “be reborn”
    – i’m mostly vegetarian now, and i’ve found the easiest explanation is telling my friends half-jokingly “i’ve done too many evil things” and people just laugh, understanding it’s a buddhist concept, and move on to other things
    – a good number of hong kong ppl actually are veg two days a month, at 1st and 15th of lunar calendar (i.e. new moon and full moon).
    – sometimes ppl will swear off beef (or meat or all animals depending on the degree) for the rest of their lives in exchange for a “blessing” to save the health of their family member. they not might even be buddhists before, but have heard of the concepts, so i guess it’s a bit like some converting to christianity in western culture when times are extreme and dire.

    hope that’s some fun info for you!

    namaste! michael

  4. Oh, Michael — thank you so much. You’re truly an inspiration.




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