Attachments: The 5 Afflictions and the 5 Elements

A dear friend and yoga student of mine wrote last week to ask for a yoga lesson for letting go of attachments. I asked her to elaborate because there are so many places we have attachments and so many different reasons that we have attachments.   In B.K.S. Iyengar’s translation of Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, he writes: “The sadhaka must learn to locate the sources of the afflictions, in order to be able to nip them in the bud through their yogic principles and disciplines.”  We have to understand ourself, where our attachment is coming from and what need feels it isn’t getting met in order to understand the attachment enough to begin to let it go.  

She described attachment to relationships and all the pain she felt when relationships ended.    For her, the source of attachment came from a deep seated fear of being separated from others and being unable to make a difference in the world. She was afraid that she would die and not be remembered. She wanted so much to have lived a life with meaning, the kind of meaning that comes from two hearts meeting one-another and the connection that is created through deep understanding and helping one another.  What she was describing was connection, which is the element of fire. This deep yearning to feel another heart beating nearby.

When the relationship ended she believed that it was because of her.  She looked inside and searched for any trait about herself that was the cause for it and believed what her mind had to say even though none of her hypothesis were founded on truth or reality, they were all just theories.  AND this is what we do as humans, we make things up and then go on living as if they are truths, as if they have happened.   We can go on living our lives according to these beliefs, whether they are truths or not.  We make up reasons why we get rejected, and often we put the rejection on ourselves as if it was something about us, that thing… that thing about us that we have always blamed for rejection… and forget to wonder… Was that about me? Maybe it wasn’t about me? Maybe it was entirely about the other persons fears, beliefs, vulnerabilities, shame, sense of adequacy, self worth…

What You Will Find Below:

  • Attachment and the 5 Afflictions – Patanjali
  • Attachment and the 5 Elements 
  • Yoga Sequence for Attachment + Self Inquiry Questions
  • Poem from Mary Oliver for Inspiration

Attachment and the 5 Afflictions:

In Sutra II.3 Patanjali writes:
avidya asmita raga dvesa abinivesah klesah

Avidya = lack of spiritual knowledge – the failure to understand the conjuction between the seer and the seen, it is mistaking this material body as the self. 
Asmita = ego, pride ‘I’ or ‘me’
Raga = desire, attachment, love, passion
Devsa = hate, dislike, abhorrence, enmity
Abinivesah = love of life, fear of death, clinging to life, leaning towards attachment, 
Klesah = affliction, pain, distress, sorrow, trouble

“The five afflictions which disturb the equilibrium of consciousness are: ignorance or lack of wisdom, ego, pride of the ego or the sense of ‘I’, attachment to pleasure, aversion to pain, fear of death and clinging to life.” – B.K.S. Iyengar

Attachment and the 5 Elements:

The 5 Elements are:

  • Fire
  • Earth
  • Metal
  • Water 
  • Wood

Fire: Connection
Fire is about connection. Fire wants to know that there is another heart beating nearby.  A person who had fire as a dominant trait would say “connection is really important to me.”  Is your attachment stemming from this need? Are you attached because you are worried about losing connection? Is the attachment there because of a belief that if you didn’t have this, you would lose connection or love?  Is the attachment actually helping you to connect or is it stopping you from the connection that you are looking for?  Is the attachment serving your heart?

Earth: Getting Needs Met
Earth is about having needs and getting those needs met. The best way to understand earth is through a garden metaphor. A garden needs the elements… water, wind, good soil, and it needs care.  If it has it’s needs met, then it will have a fruitful harvest, if not, then it won’t.  If you have a garden but someone else’s needs are always getting in the way of your time to take care of your own garden, you will not have a fruitful harvest. Imagine living with a messy roommate that always leaves things in the way or dirty and you spend all your time cleaning up after them so that you can use the space, all the time that you would have had to give to creating and working on your own needs, then you are unable to have abundance, your energy for your life and your projects dwindles, and ultimately your projects don’t produce as much of a harvest as they could if you were able to give them the proper care and attention.  Earth is about working together, as a community, there is an understanding that we are not in this alone and it takes an entire community to have a fruitful life.  Are your attachments coming from needing to have your needs met? Are you getting your needs met? Are your attachments serving you getting your needs met or are they getting in the way of having a fruitful harvest?  Are your attachments distracting you from your purpose? Are they pulling away from your resources (time, money, energy, creativity) so that you cannot give your full self to your passions? Are your attachments enabling you to get all your needs met or are they actually stopping you from having abundance?

Metal: Letting Go
Metal is about understanding what is truth and what isn’t and to let go of anything that isn’t truth. Metal asks you to know what is serving your heart and what isn’t and asks you to let go of anything that doesn’t serve your heart.  When something in life happens that is hard or causes a lot of pain, like losing a job, or losing a dear friend or meaningful relationship, a partner, or the death of someone or an animal that we loved; we can find ourselves deeply attached to that person or to anger or to guilt or being right or wrong, or to certain memories, beliefs, or ways of seeing what happened, sometimes we can even be attached to being the victim and to hating the other person.  

So how do we let go?  Letting go happens once we see the gems of the experience we had, no matter what experience it was.  What did you take away from that experience? What did you learn? In my life, some of my biggest teachings have come from learning what NOT to do, how NOT to be… I have had such deep lessons in betrayal, loyalty, friendship, shame, failure, and ways to communicate, mostly through being the recipient of things that kind of sucked!   We can look back and find what we learned, and then HALLELUJAH! Now I never have to make that mistake, now I know how to communicate, now I know how to not lose myself or blame myself for something that someone else is projecting on me, now I can help someone else get through this!   Now I see the skill-set I gained through going through this.  Once we see what we have, then it is easy to let go, we see that we are better, stronger, more skilled, more talented, and there is nothing to be angry, resentful, guilty, or ashamed of anymore. We see what serves our heart and can let go of the rest. 

When it is a death of someone, we can look at the time that we got to be together and see what that person or that creature showed us, what we learned from the time together.  Some people and animals shift our perspective of the world forever. Now we look through our eyes differently and what was once something that came from another person, is now ours forever.  In this way, what was once outside of us, is now inside and the rest can be let go of. 

Are your attachments coming from thinking you need something that is outside of you?  Are you  holding onto something because you feel that you aren’t okay without it? How can you make your life serve you? How can you take the riches from your experiences and make them your own? Is holding onto this serving your heart?

Water: Oneness
Water is about oneness. It is about the great mystery and the willingness go into the unknown. It is about understanding that we can never be separate because we are an intrinsic part of EVERYTHING.   Each little grain of sand, each particle of water, each plant, each being, all a part of one. Are your attachments coming from fear of being alone or being separate? Nini Melvin, a shiatsu teacher of mine once said, ” we pray alone, poop alone, and, in the end, we die alone.”  Water asks us to be with the loneliness, to be willing to go into that place, the depth of the unknown that our lives are. To be with the mystery of it all and to understand that within this emptiness is fullness, the loneliness is oneness, separateness…a connection to everything, to be willing to be with it.  Are your attachments coming from a fear of being alone? Of being separate? Can you see that this is the nature of life, this is the reality of it, and ultimately, you are connected, you are a part of EVERYTHING, and let yourself relax into the great mystery?  Are your attachments creating more separation? Is it just attachment to believing that you are separate that is causing the separation? 

Metal and wood are slightly different, metal asks you to take what was once outside of you and make it a part of you, but water asks you to know that you are a part of everything. 

Wood: Vision
The wood element asks you to look at your life’s purpose, your vision, and then direct all of your energy towards that vision.  How can we be sure that all of the seeds we are planting will serve our life’s purpose? Is this attachment serving my purpose or is it taking away from my purpose?  Can we look at our relationships and see if they are helping us or hindering us to do our vision?  


  • Thought patterns 
  • Beliefs about ourselves or the world
  • Our food 
  • Sleeping Schedule
  • Work
  • Addictions
  • Friends
  • Fears
  • and more!

What serves your vision and what doesn’t?

Yoga Sequence for Attachment

Notice your attachments as you practice and see if you can understand where they are coming from?
With each pose look at your fears, your thoughts, your likes, your dislikes, your comfort, your discomfort, your aversion, your loves, your ego, your sense of “I,” the story of you and the story of your practice time, how you feel about mistakes and failure, how you feel about successes… look at it all.  What serves your heart and what doesn’t?

  1. Supta Tadasana – Chest opener over two blocks
  2. Siddhasana – AUM
  3. Handstand – notice your fear, notice which leg you are attached to kicking up with, notice discomfort, notice how far you are away from the wall and your attachment to how you place your hands and how you set up for the pose, notice your feelings about doing the pose, do you feel attached to getting up, to doing it, to how you will feel after it, how you will perform, failures, the story of your history of how you came to be able to do this pose, do you compare yourself to anyone? To yourself?
  4. Pinchamayurasana – repeat above observations
  5. Tadasana
  6.  Trikonasana
  7.  Vira 2
  8.  Utthitah Parsvakonasana
  9.  Ardha Chandrasana
  10.  Vira 1
  11.  Vira 3
  12.  Parivritta Ardha Chandrasana
  13.  Parivritta Trikonasana
  14.  Practice stringing Vira 1 –> Vira 3 –> Parivritta Ardha Chandrasana –> Parivritta Trikonasana  Notice: Your comfort, discomfort, sense of struggle or ease, stories about your strength, your ability to move forward, your sense of failure or mistake, and your attachment to feeling a certain way in these poses… Can you be with what is, not what you want it to be? What are your attachments and why are they there?)
  15.  Salamba Sarvangasana
  16.  Viparitta Karani
  17.  Savasana 

Mornings at Blackwater: By Mary Oliver

For years, every morning, I drank
from Blackwater Pond.
It was flavored with oak leaves and also, no
the feet of ducks.

And it always assuaged me 
from the dry bowl of the very far past.

What I want to say is
that the past is the past,
and the present is what your life is,
and you are capable
of choosing what that will be,
darling citizen.

So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination;
or the harbor of your longing,

and put your lips to the world.
And live
your life.