There are two ways you can live a yogic lifestyle. Learn about the lives of the renunciate and householder and consider how you might begin to observe your journey and which path speaks to you.
I shall become a yogi and dwell in the Divine’s mountain cave,
I shall be lost in yoga beside the fountain-head of bliss,
I shall appease my hunger for knowledge with the fruit of Truth,
I shall not seek a well to quench the burning thirst of my heart,
But I shall draw the water of peace into the jar of my soul.
I shall both laugh and dance and weep and sing on the heights of joy.
– from a Bengali Poem
Although today most people think of yoga as physical postures, the true meaning of yoga is union. The union of body, mind, soul, and spirit. A yogic lifestyle is a journey to create unity on all levels. This means to live every day consciously, with a focused, calm mind, seeking inner perfection at all times.
Like any journey, there are many possible routes. There’s the option to change to a different route if it seems to better suit our needs. Generally, however, yogic lifestyles fall into one of two basic divisions.
1. The Renunciate Yogi
In a world filled with so many distractions, living consciously may seem impossible. This is why, for thousands of years in all traditions, there have been those who choose to minimize their worldly contact and live more reclusive lives. Here there are different degrees of withdrawal, from being part of an ashram or monastic community, to wandering from one sacred site to another, to living in isolation in a mountain cave or forest hermitage.
Yogis living in communities have regular contact with the world. They often provide services such as running schools, offering food and shelter for pilgrims, and maintaining sacred temples and shrines. The yogis who wander, singly or in small groups, commonly known as sadhus, have minimal outside contact, while the isolated yogis avoid all contact if possible.
Most renunciate yogis have few personal possessions and follow routines in accordance with their chosen lineage. They have personal practices that include prayer and meditation, performing sacred rituals and offerings, devotional chanting, breathing, and physical postures. Some choose to practice strict austerities or go naked, but for most, a simple life dedicated to achieving enlightenment is enough. As a young man, my guru, Sri Satuwa Baba Maharaji, was sent from the ashram to deepen his practices in the more peaceful Himalayas for ten years. Three of these were spent mostly in isolation in the high caves. Once, I asked him if he was all alone. He matter-of-factly replied, “Oh no, there was a bear.” He did breathing exercises to stay warm during the winter and ate special herbs to satisfy hunger when food wasn’t available.
During my travels in India, I have met and been welcomed by a wide variety of yogis including one who, I was told, was over 300 years old. He looked good for his age! Some are a little austere, but most are friendly, with joy and bliss sparkling from their eyes. In my experience, as long as you are respectful, most are open and generous. I have been invited to sit by their fires on cold days, chanted in mountain caves, and been blessed with sacred ash.
The most exciting time to meet India’s yogis is during a Kumbha Mela, the great spiritual festivals which attract up to 50 million people. This is an opportunity for all yogis to gather in one place, to renew old friendships, and catch up on yogic news. The ashrams set up camps to feed and house, the wanderers arrive in droves, and the rarely seen come down from their mountain caves.
If following a reclusive path feels right for you, my recommendation is to try it for a few months before making a long-term commitment. While there are Westerners living in Indian ashrams, there are also monastic communities closer to home.
2. The Householder Yogi
For those wanting to follow a yogic lifestyle but are not ready to be reclusive, the alternative option is the path of the householder. This is a more balanced approach, where one continues to live in the material world while following modified yogic practices. As such, this path faces many distractions and takes a firm resolve.
As with the renunciate, keep your life simple. Over-complication is the biggest distraction. Remember, living a yogic lifestyle means attempting to behave consciously at all times. Establish regular daily practices suitable to your style of life, your family, and work commitments. Include meditation, some physical exercise, good quality sleep, and a healthy diet. As time permits, add in the study, chanting, or devotional practices.
Yogis should try to live their lives mindfully, being conscious that their choices are in accordance with the guidelines laid out in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as the yama and niyamas.
- Be kind to yourself, to others, and the environment, in thought, word, and action.
- Be truthful and honest, including with yourself.
- Don’t take what isn’t yours, including not wasting another’s time.
- Don’t waste your energy, that of others, or natural resources.
- Don’t be greedy; take only what you need.
- Keep your body, mind, and environment clean and clutter free.
- Have desires, but also enjoy the gifts you have.
- Be disciplined, especially with your spiritual practices.
- Study sacred texts and practice inner reflection.
- Celebrate your Higher Self and listen to its advice.
Periodically, check in with your life and see what you can let go of that no longer serves your journey. It could be material possessions, relationships, emotions, habits, or judgments. Cultivate lifestyle practices that birth an inner peacefulness, harmony, and balance.
Even as a householder, it’s beneficial to belong to a local community of like-minded people. The opportunity to practice with others, and having their support in times of doubt or confusion, can be a great asset. Even with your regular practices, take time for silence. This might be to go away for a few days’ retreat or just set aside half a day at home when you don’t look at your messages or answer the phone and do a little extra meditation. If you have many family commitments, make your devotion to them the center of your spiritual practice.
We can begin our yogic journey at any point in our life. However, the Vedas lay out a simple yet practical plan. It divides a person’s life into four parts.
- The first phase is from birth until the mid-20s. This is the time for education, starting a job and preparing for family life. Spiritual practices usually reflect those of one’s family.
- The second phase continues until around the mid-50s. This is the time for marriage, raising a family, creating a home, and developing financial stability. Spiritual practices become less, due to greater responsibilities.
- During the third phase, from the mid-50s until the early 70s, family responsibilities are gradually released. More time is spent in spiritual practices and serving society.
- Phase four is the time to withdraw completely from family life and obligations, perhaps by joining an ashram community. The focus here is completely on spiritual practices.
Whichever path you choose, enjoy it. Be responsible, but without being overly serious. The people I have met who I consider as highly evolved generally have one thing in common—a great sense of fun. Remember, enlightenment means to lighten up!
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