How Yoga Teaches Us to Simplify Our Lives and Be Less Materialistic

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Propel yourself on the path of minimalism with these yogic principles.

The Desire for Wealth Is the Source of Unhappiness

“It is not life and wealth and power that enslave men, but the cleaving to life and wealth and power.” — Buddha

One of the major side-effects of my yoga and meditation practice has been a reduction in the amount of stuff I own. In fact, I don’t feel attracted to most things that I thought will make me happy — better shoes, a nicer pen (back in high school), earphones, jacket, etc. My appetite for “success” itself has gone down. I’m talking about the traditional definition of success that we’re fed by society — high-paying job/business, nice car, home, “high net-worth” connections, and so on.

Mind you, this didn’t just happen as a result of following the trend of minimalism. I support minimalism without hesitation. But the change in my personality was because of something deeper — my progress on the yogic/spiritual path.

Most spiritual traditions encourage simple living, and yoga is no different. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, he lays down five yamas (moral restraints) and five niyamas (observances). Combined, this set of 10 principles are guidelines for, as well as characteristics of a yogi.

One of the yamas is aparigraha — the virtue of non-possessiveness, non-grasping, or non-greediness. It means wanting only what you truly need, and not hankering after materialistic possessions inspired by what others have.

Every religion, in some form or the other, teaches that happiness is within and desires are the root of suffering. Again, yoga is no different. The literal meaning of yoga is “union with God,” which can only be achieved if you transcend the desire for the things of this world and go inward to find true happiness.

It’s perfectly easy to see how desires create suffering and lead to a joyless life. To afford the material possessions you desire, you need to work hard and spend a lot of time thinking about making money. Whether that comes in the form of a high-paying job or starting your own business, one thing is given— you’ll have less time to focus on things that truly matter.

What are those things? Your family, personal growth, hobbies, learning new skills, meeting new people, and so on. Further, the expensive lifestyle requires sacrifice. It limits the directions you can take in life, forcing you to always take the route that makes more money regardless of it being unfulfilling.

It’s hard to transcend the desire for external things when you’ve been trained to believe that happiness lies in a new car, a faster laptop, and the latest iPhone. The worst part is that even the acquisition of all those things leads to nothing.

You might be able to afford branded shoes, take exotic vacations to Hawaii, and have dinners in high-end restaurants. But you’ll never be able to fill the emptiness that all of us feel inside — the lack of joy. This expectation of finding fulfillment in material objects is what gets people addicted to possessions.

To achieve the happiness that we all yearn for, we need to let go of our desires, attachments, and in some cases, the possessions themselves. I know it’s easier said than done. But here are few ways you can get there.

Affirm the Positive, Don’t Negate the Negative

Whenever we decide to get rid of something in our lives, we focus all our energy on throwing it out — bad habits, possessions, people, etc. But our denial is what gives them the energy to remain in our lives. You see, what you resist not only persists but also grows in size.

The harder you try to not eat the cookie, the more you will be tempted to do it. Every time you eat the cookie, you’ll be filled with guilt and remorse. The same is the case with people when they tackle their attachment to materialism on the spiritual path.

All of us mistakenly default to thinking in terms of the things we have to give up. The more you think, “I have to give up going out with friends, buying the new dresses and the fancy dinners,” the more you’d want to do it.

Clearly, self-denial backfires. Instead, affirming the positive is the right way to go about it. In the above case, instead of thinking you have to give up shopping, think about how you’re making time for other important things in life — spending time with family, focusing on your hobbies, etc.

It also comes down to why you want to simplify. Do you want to simplify just to impress others and make pretentious Instagram posts? Or do you want to do something else with the free space?

Bruce Elkin, the author of [Simplicity and Success]( and a life coach who helps clients simplify, distinguishes between “reactive” and “purposeful” simplicity. “If you clean out clutter to declutter, it’s a temporary fix,” he says. “But if you clean out the clutter to make a meditation space or a reading area, then you have a clear purpose. The clutter doesn’t return.

I too try to focus on what I’ve gained:

  • Simpler mornings by not having to spend hours deciding what to wear.

  • More space for my meditation practice and exercise in my room

  • A clear desk that helps me be productive

  • A clean bed that lets me sleep the way I want!

  • And most importantly, a clear conscience.

Life is much better if you focus on the positive. Because what you focus on, grows — remember that the next time you find yourself focusing on the negativity in your life.

The Central Keyword in Yoga

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” — Einstein

One of the core principles of yoga is “moderation.” Unlike a lot of philosophies, yoga doesn’t emphasize extremes. Whether it’s about food, or habits, going to the extreme only creates more attachment.

The following lines from Autobiography of a Yogi, concern Swami Sri Yukteswar, the Guru of Yogananda:

He (Sri Yukteswar) discountenanced any extremes. A disciple once started a long fast. My guru only laughed: “Why not throw the dog a bone?”

The point to be noted here is that Sri Yukteswar often recommended fasting as a natural cure for many ailments. But in this case, the disciple was going to the extreme. Perhaps in trying to sever his attachment to food, he was getting attached to the absence of food!

Similarly, many modern minimalists go to great lengths to ensure they have the least possessions. They treat it as an unannounced competition.

Some of them use old pieces of clothing to create reusable sheets as a replacement for toilet paper. Others make their own deodorant from baking soda and water. Again, going to the extremes creates attachment. One can only find peace in the center, i.e, in moderation.

Simplicity isn’t about making a fetish of frugality. It only leads to relapse. You can have neat clothes, toilet paper (for God’s sake), and a good taste of fashion. There’s no judgment here. You’re the one judging yourself.

Simply, the list of ‘essentials’ is different for everyone. But whatever it is, it should make your life simple, but not too simple.

Think Hard Before You Buy

With the practice of yoga and meditation techniques, we learn to pay attention to our thoughts as they arise. This is tremendously helpful to tackle “retail therapy” and “buyers remorse.”

When the thought to buy something comes to mind, let the thought float for a while on the surface of your mind. Don’t act on it. Just observe it. Gradually, you may realize it to be a temporary impulse that faded away as soon as it came.

Ask yourself if you really need it. Do you have the room to keep it? The cash to pay for it? Can you borrow it from someone? Or do a DIY setup? Can you buy it secondhand? These are just a bunch of top-of-the-head questions you can ask yourself to make sure you genuinely need something.

Yoga also helps us to deal with the demons inside rather than medicating ourselves with buying stuff. Many yoga students feel that their practice itself is the highlight of their day. And when happiness is can be found by sitting on your mat and meditating for a half-hour, then why pile up junk?

Find Like-Minded People

It’s hard to stick to the path of simplicity when your friends invite you to every shopping trip and flaunt their newly-acquired, expensive piece of junk. No wonder the biggest cause of relapse is the pressure to conform.

It indeed can be a little embarrassing to have a smaller car or unbranded shoes as compared to your friends. It’s possible to ignore them for some time, but depending upon how strong your resolve is, it can catch up to you sooner or later.

To avoid this from happening, make sure you spend time with like-minded people. Find communities online that talk about living simply, helping the environment, and living a debt-free life.

The longer you stay on the path of simplicity, the less you miss your old materialistic habits. I no longer feel the impulse to buy new clothes or devices for example.

As you do more of what matters to you, you will gain a deep satisfaction that renders buying and consumption less interesting. Paradoxically, once you truly embrace simplicity, you end up with richness.

Final Thoughts

Most of what we think of as happiness is only pleasure. And a pleasurable life isn’t happy. You just need to look at all the drug addicts. Or maybe look at yourself when you just finish a binge-watching session that lasted ten times longer than you expected it to.

Happiness can be found easily (probably only) in simplicity. And while simplicity only tells us the things we need to remove, yoga tells us how to actually open the inner reservoir of happiness for which all you need is a couple of cushions and a mat.

So let’s take a new look at minimalism and use the principles of yoga, like aparigraha, to quench our longing for happiness.

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Written on March 11, 2021