Yoga is defined by Patanjali-muni as Citta-Vṛtti-Nirodha, meaning yoga is that state where the consciousness stops moving. When this happens, the individual merges with Brahman, a cognitive state of nothingness, and this experience is called samādhi.
Considering this, can a person adopt yoga as a lifestyle?
There are many paths to samādhi, each designed to suit the temperament of the yogī. These can be broadly categorised as karma-yoga (union through action), bhakti-yoga (union through surrender), jñāna-yoga (union through enquiry into the Self), hatha-yoga (union through control of the kundalini) and rāja-yoga (union through coaxing of the kundalini).
All these paths (mārga) have a preparation stage, just like becoming a cricketeer like Sachin Tendulkar requires training and practice. The best training rules for life can be found in kriya-yoga aspect of rāja-yoga comprising five steps – yama (behaviour modulation), niyama (self-control), āsana (static poses), prāṇāyāma (breath control) and pratyāhāra (withdrawal of the senses).
When we integrate these aspects into our āśrama or life-stage – stage of studentship (brahmacaryāśrama), stage of a house-holder (gṛhasthāśrama), stage of retirement (vāṇaprasthāśrama) and stage of renunciation (sannyāsāśrama), we get a perfect life-cycle system that integrates dharma (values/ conditioning/ control) with the other two puruṣārtha, artha (material prosperity) and kāma (passion/ desire). The beauty of the design is that all these factors evolve with the maturity of the person.
Brahmacaryāśrama or student life is the most critical period of life because this is where a person becomes programmed with the skills that he or she will use for life. This conditioning (dharma) is first taught by the parents, then teachers, friends and society. When kriya-yoga is taught in this āśrama, then the person gets a powerful tool with which to face the pressures of life-experiences.
Six key elements in yama which cover most aspects of behaviour with the external environment are ahiṃsā (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), aparigrāhya (renouncing possessions), brahmacaryam (sexual continence), and mitāhāra (diet control).
- Ahiṃsa does not mean absence of violence. As explained by Śrī Kṛṣṇa in SBG (Śrīmad-Bhagavadgītā), chapter 18, verse 17, ahiṃsa is the absence of doer-ship (ahaṅkāra) in one’s action, assuming that action conforms to Dharma (societal norms and balance). This means that a person gives every other entity the right to exist without compromising on his or her own rights and responsibilities.
- Satya means truth. Unfortunately, truth is often subordinated to perception, so a yogī must develop two capabilities. First, the discipline of evidenced based decision-making and second, the willingness to be corrected when evidence is presented.
- Asteya (non-stealing) does not just mean absence of stealing, it also means integrity and giving credit where it is due. For instance, it means bosses will not take credit for work and give it to the appropriate subordinate. A classical example is Sir M. Visvesvaraya, who in the period when there was no electricity, used to use official candles for office work and personal candles for personal work.
- Aparigrāhya (renouncing possessions) – This is a quality, which a person must acquire after enjoying artha (possessions) and kāma (desires) in gṛhasthāśrama (stage of a householder). This quality is important because it teaches a person how to let-go irrelevant baggage/ experiences/ relationships.
- Brahmacaryam (sexual continence) means modulation of sexual activity because complete stoppage is not practical. This results in preservation of ojas, a prāṇic sheath around the prāṇa channels called nādi, which increases vīryam (virility) and helps overcome fear/ anxiety. This also requires that a person relate to members of the opposite gender with discretion and self-control.
- Mitāhāra (diet control) – excessive eating is a disorder (doṣa). The rule of thumb is that one’s weight should be height in cms minus 100. For example, if one is 165 cms in height, then the weight should be around 165-100 = 65 kgs).
Niyama is self-control and covers our ability to process stimulus without losing equilibrium. It has 6 elements – śaucam (hygiene), santoṣam (contentment), svādhyāyam (introspection), tapas (austerity), śraddhā (dedication), and dānam (charity).
- Śaucam (hygiene) comprises external cleanliness (bāhira-śaucam), encompassing physical cleanliness as well as environmental / societal cleanliness, and internal cleanliness (āntara-śaucam) which requires the yogi to keep the asmitā (sense of self-worth) in the present, and unencumbered by past experiences.
- Santoṣam (contentment) – there is no end to ambition and desire, but these cause turbulence and chaos (adharma). Modulating desire (kāma) and feeling content over results achieved by one’s own effort is critical for balanced living.
- Svādhyāyam (introspection) – one does not know everything there is to know, so the willingness to learn and mature is a critical skill, one that comes from study and reflection.
- Tapas (austerity) – the core of any austerity practice is silence (mouna) because silence allows one to say no to temptation.
- Śraddhā (dedication) has often been called faith, it is actually a mix of sincerity, dedication, patience and tenacity. Śraddhā has been best explained by Śrī Kṛṣṇa in SBG (Śrīmad-Bhagavadgītā), chapter 17 (link – https://schoolofyoga.in/yoga-social-system/bhagavad-geeta-chapter-17).
- Dānam (charity) – charity means giving without expectation of return. There are many types of dāna, the best being those that contribute to life like anna-dāna (giving food) followed by auśadha-dāna (medicines), vidya-dāna (education), vastra-dāna (clothes) kriya-dāna (physical assistance or social service), and lakshmī-dāna (giving money).
Āsana is defined as sthiram-sukham-āsanam (static, stable pose). The reason for this is that āsana modulates the movement of prāṇa in the nādi which requires focused practice. Since this may be difficult in brahmacaryāśrama and gṛhasthāśrama, the recommendation is that one learns and practices āsana as much as possible but includes other forms of exercise. Prāṇāyāma is breath control. Practice of pranayama reduces stress, increases balance between left and right brain activity, brings internal stability, and hormonal balance or homeostasis. Pratyāhāra or withdrawal from society is not possible in today’s world, especially in brahmacaryāśrama and gṛhasthāśrama. As compensation, one can practice dhyāna (meditation), though it is not strictly pratyāhāra. Dhyāna increases dispassion (vairāgyam) which is critical for decision-making in any situation and prepares the ground for pratyāhāra.
One aspect of dharma which is not strictly a part of yoga-vidya but essential for success in yoga is practice of nitya-karma (daily duties). Nitya-karma mainly comprises nitya-pūja (daily worship, which can be to a favourite deity or iṣṭadeva when one has not received dīkśā in sandhyāvandana during upanayana-samskāra, which supersedes everything). This is followed by supporting one’s kula-deva (clan deity), performing brahma-yajñá (offering to various entities) and performing rituals to appease the ancestors (tarpaṇa and śrāddha). Dharma does not allow compromise on performance of nitya-karma and samskāra (rites of passage). The reason why nitya-karma is important is because these are selfless actions, so they reduce the feeling of doer-ship (ahaṅkāra), increase tapas- śakti and also help to maintain stability of all subtle (sūkśma) energies (prāṇa) that exist around us.
Lastly, after a person has enjoyed material prosperity (artha) and other desires (kāma) in a dhārmic manner through brahmacaryāśrama and gṛhasthāśrama, it is time for him or her to seek samādhi or mokṣa.