by J. Brown
Among those interested in yoga philosophy, many consider the notion of a “householder” interpretation to be a watering down of essential teachings. This stems from a classical view of yoga as an inherently ascetic endeavor, requiring a withdrawal from ordinary life in order to attain a state of unindividuated mind that is free from pain and suffering. However, a strong case can be made that not only is the mundane path equally steeped in the history and philosophies of yoga but that it is profoundly more relevant and helpful to modern practitioners than predominate dogmas.
Most of what people assert about yoga philosophy is conjecture. This is entirely appropriate given how far yoga reaches into the dim past; the thousands of years it existed as a purely oral tradition; the difficulty in translating texts that did arise, and the fact that the only true means of understanding yoga philosophy is through an examination of one’s own experience. Sure, there will always be those who cite some special authority. But it stands to reason that whoever these people were who may have composed the verses and provided the insights that have come down to us, however ancient, they were nonetheless human beings existing in time and space, no different from you or me. Whatever access to a knowledge of yoga they may have had is no less available to any other human being existing in time and space.
Unless of course, you believe otherwise. Which many people do. All sorts of hierarchies and power structures have been created in the name of yoga. These doctrines are far more established and propagated than the humble teachings that have always been passed from parent to child and friend to friend without any need for recognition or documentation. In the Upanishads, where the classical view was first being codified, reference is made to “the great householder” who asks the local spiritual authority: “Sir, what is that through which, if it is known, everything else becomes known?” He is informed that there are two types of knowledge: 1. Higher knowledge- which only he, the ordained lineage holder of god, can bestow, and 2. Lower knowledge- which would be coming from anywhere else other than him. Basically, the only way you can come to know the nature of existence is to renounce all worldly desire and become a disciple of an enlightened master.
Even if there were enough enlightened masters to go around, I just don’t see how we can ever really learn about the nature of life, and the role we play in it, if the goal is to somehow transcend or remove ourselves from that experience.
A few weeks ago, I learned about impermanence and the blessing of existence in a way that only an ordinary life can provide. I had driven my wife to a first sonogram appointment. She had been having some unusual pain that was causing concern but we were still genuinely optimistic that the second child we’ve been hoping for was indeed a reality. Quite a somber shock it was when she called to tell me that the pregnancy was ectopic and I needed to get her to another hospital straight way. By the time I got my daughter home, made arrangements for someone to look after her, and got back to the hospital, she had already just been taken into the operating room and I missed my chance to see her beforehand. I had been told that the procedure would not take long. After I had been sitting in the waiting room for a period of time that was twice as long as intimated, it started to dawn on me that there was a very real chance that someone might come through the door and tell me something went wrong, that I would never speak to my wife again and be faced with what the impact would be on me and our daughter were she to die at this stage in our life together.
For a good thirty minutes, I experienced the depths of all my attachments and fears. And it was both horrible and enlightening at the same time. The anguish of the possible loss was so overwhelming, so all-encompassing. Yet, when the nurse finally did come and I learned there was no problem, the majesty and glory of my tenuous mundane life was equally breath-taking.
My wife is fine now. We may still have another child. But regardless, there is no doubt that were it not for all the years of devoted effort towards cultivating our intimate partnership and family together, without the risk of being in the world and navigating all its pitfalls, I could never know what it means to exist and to love in the way I did when I got to hold my wife again.
Whatever grand spiritual principles or attributes that have been mentioned in ancient texts or uttered by charismatic teachers, regarding the nature and purpose of existence, can be gleaned in no better way than through a full participation in ordinary life. Let us not be fooled by the seemingly imperceptible way this understanding is communicated. Within our daily hum-drum routines, all the knowledge and experience we will ever need is contained.
J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy in Practice, Yoga Therapy Today and the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. Visit his website at yogijbrown.com
I am sorry for your family’s loss in this pregnancy. It’s a hard go.
I believe that it is true — householding is a great gift and provides profound lessons that we can share with each other.
Thanks for sharing, J. 🙂
I’m guessing that the practice of vairagya or non-attachment must be simpler in an ashram or on a mountaintop. Practicing it amidst the intensity I feel for my wife and daughters is quite another thing!
Still, the awareness that it is all tenuous and ultimately fleeting somehow drives home the utter beauty.
I agree with you wholeheartedly. To maintain an equanimity when internally and externally there is chaos, that is the true practice of yoga. Blissing out on a retreat in a secluded locale is easy and pleasurable but it lacks the opportunity to engage in the full fabric of life.
In fact it is Krishna, in the Bhagvad Gita (perhaps the most important text on yoga to go with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras), that he speaks about the householder-yogi. That as a householder we are still capable of pursuing a life of Spirituality. It is a totally new concept that he introduces with the framework of human endeavour – in that spirituality is not only for renunciates.
VanaPrastha and Sanyaasa are the final 2 stages in a human’s life, as prescribed in Hinduism.
These stages are preceeded by Grihasta – the life of a wordly, householder.
Also, Lord Krishna makes it clear that merely “dying poor” , in and of itself, is not necessarily a worthy achievement for a human –> one who, by his sincerity, honesty and industriousness, achieves great wealth, then renounces wordly pursuits in the evening of his life, and donates his wealth to charity, attains great Merit ( Punya).
In other words, leading the worldy-life in one’s youth is not necessarily a disqualification for eventually attaining a higher-state of consciousness.