The Yoga Teacher Diaries: Practicing Non-Attachment On and Off the Mat

Today I walked into the Tiny Buddha Yoga studio to teach my 10am hot vinyasa, already dripping sweat from the balmy, 90 degree weather outside. Usually, the studio lobby would be air conditioned, and I’d be hit with a blast of refreshing, cold air. However, today the air conditioning was broken, and even the lobby was sticky with thick heat. I audibly groaned as I set my bag down, and exclaimed how hot it was to Kara and Matt - two other TBY teachers - who were hanging out after Kara’s 8:30am class. Matt laughed and said, “Time to practice non-attachment and let go of your attachment to air conditioning!”. 

Funny as his comment was, in all seriousness this moment was indeed a classic example of letting expectations of an attachment and its comforts affect my mood and how I react to a situation. Sure, enjoying a common comfort such as air conditioning isn’t the worst vice to have in the world. Nonetheless it exposes a common habit that we as humans turn to as a security blanket. 

In terms of practicing non-attachment on the mat, it can be as simple as being attached to the idea of going to a yoga class with your favorite teacher only to realize that there’s a sub for that day. In practicing non-attachment, the goal would be to accept that there is a sub and try and be positive instead of letting a change in the schedule affect your practice. It is directly linked to the common yogic theme of mindfulness. We try our best to remain present on our mats and mindfully accept and honor whatever may come, whether it be an emotion or a difficult pose. 

Even off the mat, attaching ourselves to things makes it easier for us to jump to a reaction or an emotion. For example, something as small as being attached to the idea of wanting to take a nap can make me resent having class and end up being in a bad mood, unable to participate because I’m so focused on wanting to sleep. Instead of taking the harder route of just accepting that I’m tired but also have an obligation to go to class and be an active student, it would be easier for me to fight the fact that I have class and mope through it. Thus, this attachment to wanting a nap gives me validation in being annoyed about having class. This may seem like a long, thoughtful unpacking of something that honestly happens frequently for a lot of us exhausted college students, but it exposes just how instinctive the act of attachment truly is.

This habit of attachment also has a symbolic significance in dictating how we handle certain emotions towards other people. It can be extremely difficult to muster the strength to change or confront a relationship that isn’t serving you, especially if you’re attached to the idea of that person or who you want them to represent in your life. By practicing non-attachment, we push ourselves to face the reasons why we are holding onto these toxic people, and then unpack and accept the emotions that drive us to attach to fixing them in the first place. For me, I found that my attachment to being liked and avoiding confrontation was at the root of a lot of my relationships that I felt unheard and unfulfilled in. I had to let go of the ideas that everyone needs to love me and that I’m not allowed to speak my mind, and thus face these relationship issues head on. 

Attachments can also prevent us from moving forward and keeping an open mind. We become reliant on the stances and mindsets that made us feel safe and validated in the past, and are then unable to react appropriately over time. I distinctly remember a time in Yoga Teacher Training when we were having a group discussion about ways we could practice non-attachment in our lives, and how this reluctance to confront unhealthy attachments may be hindering our ability to grow. It was the week before Thanksgiving, and I expressed how my anxiety about “family holidays” had been weighing heavy on my mind. My parents are divorced, and this year it was my Mom’s turn to have my brother and I for the holidays. We would be spending Thanksgiving with her Fiance's entire Italian family, of whom are loud, tight-knit, and extremely sociable - an environment that the ‘defiant child of divorce’ in me absolutely despised. Because my Step-dad and his family came into my life when I was well into late adolescence, I had enough agency to decide early on that I didn’t want a “new family” and would ignore all advances to build any type of relationship with them. I explained to my training cohort that even now, at the age of 19 and going on 7 years of having divorced parents, the defiant child in me still dreads a family holiday with people who I consider almost strangers. But it’s not that they were strangers because these were especially new people or they were unfriendly; I was absent. I was withdrawn. I made every extra effort to not engage with them, to not be part of the conversation. As I began to think about how many times I purposely hid out in my room, or how quiet I became - a rare occurrence considering how extroverted I usually am - in these “family” settings, I started to realize how much extra energy I had expended to continue resisting these new connections. I was so attached to that ‘defiant child’ mentality that I had spent years concertedly removing myself from the situation, putting myself into a box because I was too scared to accept that things had changed and it was time to move on. 

This all being evaluated, it’s important to note that non-attachment is not as simple as getting over or pushing down your emotions and cutting people out of your life. Telling myself to grow up, “move on”, and get over my parent’s divorce was not how I practiced non-attachment. Instead, it was a matter of just acknowledging that these emotions about being wary of new family members were valid and worthy of thinking about. They didn’t need to trigger a reaction or necessarily be acted on, but I needed to grieve with that child in me that still felt lost and overwhelmed with the shifting of her family over the years.  Further, once I could accept how I felt, I could also recognize that sometimes it is okay to push yourself and not let these emotions prevent you from moving forward. 

Whether it be learning to not react when a yoga pose is unexpected and causes your quads to throb and sweat to drip down, or approaching relationships without falling back into old habits and expectations, non-attachment can be practiced any time. At its core, it teaches us to sit with our emotions and accept them, before learning to approach ideas, people, and relationships with fresh eyes. By recognizing when we have an unhealthy attachment and openly expressing the emotions that built it, we learn how to grow.