The Four Ashramas of Yoga
The traditional Indian culture promoted four Ashramas, or stages of spiritual life, that provided a simple framework of life planning for the spiritual aspirant. Each Ashrama defined a level of spiritual practice based on the duties and responsibilities required at each stage of life. The four Ashramas allowed the Indian culture to participate in and actively support a rich spiritual life, as well as gave the individual comfort and clarity to progress along the path of Self-realization. These four stages need not be practiced in a sequential order, and while they were traditionally discussed as lasting 21-25 years, the duration of the Ashramas will vary with the individual.
The first quarter of spiritual life is spent as a celibate student, closely studying with a spiritual teacher (guru). In this stage the focus is on yogic training, mental discipline, and learning about spiritual, community, and family life. This Ashrama creates the foundation and overview of spiritual practice that follows in the three other stages.
The second quarter of spiritual life is spent as a householder, creating and supporting a family and fulfilling one’s worldly interests and duties. The most appropriate path of yoga for this stage is Bhakti and Karma Yoga, and other practices that can be performed in the context of worldly life and service to others. During this Ashrama one utilizes the training, discipline and knowledge gained from the Brahmacharya Ashrama to live a complete life and to enjoy worldly pleasures. The Householder’s challenge is to “Live in the world but allow not the world to live in you.” He or she must view life as a great teacher and strive towards a spiritual life in the midst of worldly temptations and distractions. The Householder path is also considered the most important Ashrama as it supports all of the other three Ashramas.
In the third Ashrama, one begins to withdraw from the world to establish a state of hermitage. This is a transition stage, moving away from fulfilling the needs of the family and society to deepening the practices started as a householder in preparation for the forthcoming renunciate stage. A quiet living space is sought, a simple yogic lifestyle is practiced and the close ties with family and community are reduced to the role of a detached counselor.
In this last Ashrama, the yogi/ni retreats from all involvement in all worldly pursuits and seeks only the attainment of the unitive state of Self-realization. Becoming a Sannyasin requires committing to a set period of practice and the taking of spiritual vows, usually including a vow of poverty and the abandonment of physical possessions. In order that all their time, energy and focus could be expended on spiritual practices, the Sannyasin cannot stay in a household, he has to stay in a temple or live in forest or ashram, relying on charitable donations for food.
The structures and meanings of the Ashramas have changed over the years due to the loss of caste system and through the influence of Western culture. The distinctions between the Ashramas have over time become blurred, and their overall importance has become diminished. The deeper yoga practices, once only taught to renunciates, are now becoming available to Householders who wish to practice a hybrid path. Unfortunately, these changes have produced a level of confusion and misunderstanding in the modern world of yoga, as the levels and types of yoga practices are missing an overall context. Reviving the idea of the Ashramas will not only provide this missing context, it will also give modern yoga practitioners a valuable long–term plan for their progress along the path of yoga.