I frequently get asked how modern yogis could find the time for for all the various yogic techniques that I am suggesting. My book ‘Yoga Meditation’ contains an extensive analysis of this problem, delving into what’s in India called phase of life (ashrama), world age (yuga), profession group (varna) and purpose in life (svadharma).
“How much to practice?
It is true, you can practice too much. This would be the case if your practice led you to neglecting your duties towards society and family. Sages such as Vasishta said that yoga can only succeed if undertaken in conjunction with fulfilling ones duty towards society and family (Vasishta Samhita I.25-26). This is the same view as taught in the Bhagavad Gita by Lord Krishna who says ‘By outwardly performing your duties but inwardly not being attached to the outcome knowledge is gained’ (Bhagavad Gita V.1). Again, this truth is also confirmed in Hatha Tatva Kaumudi, which proclaims that yogis need to maintain the fulfilment of their professional duties (varna) and those according to stage of life (ashrama) (Hatha Tatva Kaumudi of Sundaradeva V.29). It is clear that yogic traditions do not recommend that the practitioner become a drop out. However, you can also practice too little. What then is the appropriate amount of practice for the individual? In order to determine this we have to take into account ashrama, varna, yuga and svadharma.
Ashrama means stage of live. According to the Vedas life unfolds in four stages, which are called Brahmachary, Grhastha, Vanaprastha and Sannyasa. Brahmachary means student and this stage of life lasts on average to about 25 years of age. Remember though that the average in reality hardly ever exists. During this first stage of life one learns the skills needed for life and the practice appropriate here is asana practice with some asana mudras like Yoga Mudra, Maha Mudra, Tadaga Mudra and Viparita Karani Mudra interspersed.
The second stage of life is called Grhastha, meaning house-holder. During these second 25 years on average most people choose a partner, fulfil professional duties or run a business. During that time one maintains ones asana practice but pranayama now takes centre stage. Pranayama is the guarantor of health by balancing the doshas, it deletes karmic demerit and helps to gain mastery over the many aspects of life. At this point in life the Vedas consider it imprudent to reduce the attention dedicated to your family and professional, mercantile or administrative services rendered to society.
During that ashrama additionally the basic technique of meditation should be learned. However, it is not necessary to invest a lot of time into meditation. Much more important is to learn a sophisticated technique. With the method taught here, once it is to a certain extent mastered, you may attain mystical states relatively quickly. In many cases 10 minutes of meditation per day may be enough. Please also note that on days when you have ample time you may practice for an hour and take the exultation then reached into days when only 10 minutes are available.
The third ashrama is called Vanaprastha, (stage of forest dweller), which lasts approximately from 50 to 75. The name is reflective of the fact that in ancient society during that time people downsized and moved out into nature for inspiration and practice. In the days of the Veda the Vanaprasthas were still available to family and society in a counselling role but ones practice time is now significantly increased due to reduced professional duties and ones children taking care of themselves. While the overall time of all practices combined is doubled or more than doubled one might reduce emphasis on asana practice while significantly increasing the time spent practicing pranayama with yogic meditation now taking centre stage. The main focus of the Vanaprastha ashrama is spirituality and the preparation for samadhi. This is the essential step that we are missing today and it is usually due to material aspirations. At a certain point in our lives we need to decide what’s more important, our wallet or our spiritual heart. In fact, to choose the spiritual heart does not even necessary mean that our material welfare will take a backburner but it usually implies readiness to reduce consumption.
But this is a problem today were we are being taught as we get older to look forward to ever greater and greater levels of consumption. This is a way of disempowering our elders as they used to become wiser instead of competing with youngsters in the arenas of limited resources and consumption. Yoga means to become independent of external stimuli. This independence frees up time for more spiritual practice because we spend less time in pursuit of material goals. However, in the beginning you need to invest a small amount of time daily into gaining that independence in the first place.
The final stage of life, starting on average from age 75 onwards is called Sannyasa, meaning full-time mystic. After having devoted the Vanaprastha ashrama to a great part to the various limbs of yoga, one harvests now the benefit of being permanently established in meditation and service to the Divine.
In order to determine the time necessary to devote to practice we need to determine in which ashrama or stage of life we currently are. Since we are not living anymore in a Vedic society the ashrama model cannot be applied directly. But we can generally gauge at which stage we are and increase practice time as we mature and become more independent from material gratification. The ashrama model also encourages us to put some thought into the direction we would like to mature into and how this could impact on our material choices.
Varna means profession group. It is also used to mean caste but in the old days castes were not hereditary but determined by the way you wanted to serve the Divine and humanity. What exists today in India as the caste system is a perversion of that ancient order. Depending on your profession you need to practice more or less. If you are in the spiritual profession (in the Vedas called Brahmins) such as yoga teachers you need to practice more relative to other professions. To some extent you will need to attain what you are teaching or in the meantime be sincere about the pursuit of such attainment. Brahmins are supposed to be ruled by sattva and to increase sattva (wisdom and sacred intelligence) more practice needs to be done than other professional groups.
The next caste or profession group is called Kshatriya. In ancient days this was the nobility but today we would call them politicians and administrators. Kshatriyas are ruled by rajas with a sattva influence. Kshatriyas have a strong urge to rule and to dominate (rajas comes from the same verb root as Raj – the King) but this rule needs to be guided by wisdom and intelligence, otherwise there is little benefit for the whole population. Our society will come to naught if those in power will not perform spiritual practice of some sorts, as their intellect then will always remain clouded. As a politician and administrator you need to do a significant amount of spiritual practice that those under your rule can benefit from the wisdom of your decisions.
The third caste or profession group are the Vaishyas, the merchants and business people. They are thought to be mainly under the sway of tamas, which leads to the desire of acquisition. But again this tamas is combined with a certain amount of sattva so that their business decisions are influenced by wisdom and not by greed. Since Vaishyas are such an integral part of society if it is to flourish also the business people need to perform spiritual practice as wealth and power always loads responsibility on your shoulders. Especially pranayama will also increase your proficiency in making business decisions as it increases the skill to choose the appropriate brain hemisphere for tasks at hand.
The final group is called Shudra, which means those who do paid work to earn a wage and then spend it to obtain pleasure. For that purpose in the old days they were not expected to do a lot of practice. From an egalitarian point of view, however, all should be able to harvest the benefits of such practice as it makes everybody capable of giving. This view is shared by sage Vasishta who says that yoga is common duty for all varnas and ashramas (Vasishta Samhita I.31).
Your professional group (varna) is determined by svadharma. Svadharma is your own sacred duty it is what you are here for to contribute to this world. Every human being has a unique svadharma, a unique way of how the Divine expresses itself through you. It is your way of adding to this grand artwork of divine creativity that is the world. Nobody else can tell you what your svadharma is. You can only experience yourself and find it in your heart. The most straightforward way is to find it through spiritual practice such as the meditation taught here.
Finally let’s explore how practice time is related to world age. Of the four world ages Satya, Treta, Dvapara and Kali Yuga we are currently in the fourth and last. I have previously pointed out in detail the relationship between world age and type of mind (Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy, p.133.) During the first age, Satya Yuga, our minds still gravitated towards the nirodha (suspended) state, which today has become the coveted goal of yoga. Meditation then was not necessary for the average person. Meditation was an integral part of spiritual practice during ages 2 and 3. The types of mind predominant during those ages namely the ekagra mind (during Treta Yuga) and vikshipta mind (during Dvapara Yuga) both lend themselves to meditation, albeit to a decreasing extent. Today, as one would expect it in the Kali Yuga, the average person gravitates towards the type of mind called infatuation (mudha). This means that today we are much more identified with our bodies and wallets than in the days of the Veda. It also explains our irrational infatuation with celebrities, sports stars, entertainers and trivia of all sorts.
Due to this identification with the body you will see much less people around you practising the higher limbs but do not become detracted by this fact. In fact become encouraged and use it to triple your enthusiasm. For the good news is that due to acceleration of time quality (and entropy), as history rushes towards the great attractor at its conclusion, time spent in spiritual practice is today much more effective than in earlier ages. We read stories of ancient rishis having to practice particular forms of practice for 10,000 or more years. They had to practice for such a long time because time moved then very slowly and it took a long time to make any changes. What this basically means is that time today is much more squashed together and we may say it is denser than in the ancient days. You may here people saying that things happen faster and faster today and the world changes more quickly. This is not just a subjective experience but time quality does accelerate in Kali Yuga. Have a look how many great inventions we made in the last hundred years? It took us around 350 years before that time frame to make the same amount of inventions and before that almost 1000 years. Time does accelerate more and more. This fact makes it initially harder to practice meditation as there are so many distractions available but once the initial hurdle is overcome and we have put the computer and handheld device to sleep, the Kali Yuga is a great time to practice.
But one thing needs to be understood in this context: The Varaha Purana and other texts say that in the Kali Yuga actions can lead to success only then if they are performed with utmost precision. In previous ages we were able to use intuition and could so to say ‘wangle our way’. Modern humanity has lost this ability and those believing to utilize intuition instead often fall prey to the whims of the mind. At the outset of the Kali Yuga in India a new class of scriptures arose that described each act to be performed in minute detail. These scriptures are called the Tantras and there are about 800 of them. Interestingly enough Western societies during a similar period had ideas that were much the same and created Western Science, which like the Tantras describes everything in minute details, akin to engineering manuals.
You will find the same concept in this book. This is a scientifically precise engineering manual for meditation. Using this method with precision, predictable outcomes can be achieved. Do not leave mediation to chance. Like asana and pranayama, yoga meditation is an exact science!
- Slowly phase in meditation over the entire length of your life. Increase the time spent in meditation from stage to stage.
- Practice the time of meditation appropriate to your purpose and function in society. Those in the spiritual profession need to practice most. Those in power and the wealthy have a heightened responsibility to practice as it develops higher intelligence. For everybody meditation will increase their ability to contribute to the life of others.
- To practice meditation will help you to find your divine purpose in life, your svadharma.
- The sophistication and precision of your method of meditation is decisive for your development rather than the time spent performing it.
©Gregor Maehle 2012
An excerpt from my book Yoga Meditation: Through Mantra, Chakras and Kundalini to Spiritual Freedom.