The four ashramas of yoga
Ashramas are stages in life that give training and provide the environment for realizing the perfection of life. There are four stages of the spiritual life (ashramas) in the traditional Indian culture. They are like a simple blueprint to help an aspirant in building a spiritual life. Every Ashrama represents a level of the spiritual life and provides guidelines to assist the spiritual aspirant to pass that stage. The four Ashramas acted like a bridge between the Indian culture and the spiritual life. They brought clarity and comfort to the path of Self-realization.
Ashramas are practiced in an orderly way and the period each one takes depends on the individual. They are made to fit every stage of growth since the individual’s behavior is prone to change depending on age. Yoga changes with one’s age since it connected to doshas (balancing energies). Here are the four stages:
- Brahmacharya (Student)
This is the first stage and here the student spends most time studying closely with a spiritual teacher. These studies are mainly focused on mental discipline, family life, yogic training and the spiritual community. This stage is designed to create a firm spiritual foundation for the other three stages that follow.
- Grihasta (Householder)
This is the second stage of the spiritual life and is also known as the Householder. Here the student mostly learns about creating and supporting a family and how to pursue the worldly interests and duties in a way that does not stray from the spiritual path. Bhakti and Karma Yoga are the most applicable in this stage along with other worldly activities and service to the people. During this stage, a person is to live a complete life and face the worldly temptations while being guided by the studies of the first stage. He or she must maintain the spiritual ways while living amongst other people and strive to act as an example. This is probably the most important Ashrama and it acts as a pillar to the other three Ashramas.
- Vanaprasthya (Hermit)
In this third stage, one begins to distant himself or herself from the world to develop a state of monastery (hermitage). This stage is transitional and the person starts to move his or her focus from the family and the social needs that were practiced in the householder stage. A life if solitude is developed in preparation for the fourth stage. The close relationship with family and the society is reduced to the role of a counselor. The idea is to make the person a great spiritual adviser to the people since he or she has experienced the both worlds firsthand.
The community gets the opportunity to approach them with their problems in different fields. The Vanaprastha are known far and wide to be wise advisers and they are even approached by other leaders and rulers of the land for consultation on social problems. The people in this stage have already spent their youth experimenting with the richness of life and now they have retired. A person is expected to lead a life of separation and retire from physical pleasures of the body like sex. The urge to return to these pleasures and the frustrations that follow are compensated by the interest in the human wellbeing.
- Samnyasa (Renunciate)
In this fourth and final stage, a person retreats completely from all the worldly pursuits and only seeks to achieve the state of Self-realization. This stage requires taking of spiritual vows and committing to a certain set of practices for a period of time to strengthen the spiritual self. The person swears to live the life of poverty and abandonment of all the physical possessions so as to divert all his or her time and energy to the spiritual practices. The Samnyasin must stay in a temple or ashram and only rely on charitable donations for food.
A Samnyasin may choose whether to spend his or her days alone or join a group of other Samyasins. Some may prefer to spend their life in seclusion and solitude in far away and remote areas without any affiliation. Others can choose to spend their lives on the road making spiritual journeys to pursue spiritual missions.
Ashramas have changed over time mostly due to the Western culture. Their structure and meanings have been altered and they are not regarded with the utmost respect as before. Their importance has diminished in the modern society. Generally, these changes have brought about confusion in the modern field of yoga and these ancient forms of yoga have lost most content. Most modern men find it hard to follow the Ashramas due to the changes in the society in general.
However, yoga is still widely practiced despite the changes that have affected it over the years. This is due to the undeniable benefits that come with it.