The Four Ashramas: The Yogic Stages of Life & What They Can Teach Us

unnamedOf the many challenges in today’s world, one that is often overlooked is the lack of clear flow we can experience as we move between the various stages of our lives.  From childhood to our final years, we often feel unsettled or unfulfilled, in part because we are unsure of our responsibilities as they relate to our current stage of life and our role relative to those around us.

For example, we know that today’s children are required to deal with increasingly adult issues, including highly-charged subjects such as sexuality, violence, and global unrest.  We also know that they are expected to determine their chosen career as early as possible and then to invest themselves intensely in preparation for it – usually at the cost of a more balanced and healthy education.

And these challenges aren’t limited to childhood.  For example, as we age, we believe we should stick with one career, no matter our dissatisfaction.   We also believe that we should steadily move forward in that field, regardless of either personal challenges or external factors such as economic stagnation.  And we are taught to see younger colleagues as “competitors” we must out-perform if we are to enjoy any degree of longevity in our chosen path.

Finally, we often see retirement as a sad inevitability – an unfortunate ending that is to be held off as long as possible. And, when that day does finally come, we see it as a source of great sorrow and likely to strip us of both our identity and our usefulness.

There Is An Alternative…

These issues and many like them raise the important question: What might our lives be like if we could change our approach?  What if the stages of life had a more natural and even flow, in which each of the parts played an equally important and rewarding role?

The Yogis had such a model, known as the four ashramas or the four stages of life.  Arising in a different culture and time as it did, it requires a bit of translation in order to apply it to contemporary life in the West, but with that in mind, I think you’ll find it contains some very valuable insights.  In today’s article, we’ll explore each of the four stages, in the hope that they might provide some helpful ideas for achieving a healthier, more harmonious approach to the phases of our own lives.

The First Stage: Brahmacharya or Student  

The first of the four ashramas is brahmacharya, or the student stage.  The Sanskrit word literally means “behavior leading to Brahma,” or, in other words, learning to act in a way that is in harmony with the divine.  As this suggests, the Yogis believed that the first portion of our lives (classically from the age of 1 to 24) should be devoted to learning the greater principles of life and how to live in accord with them.  Known in Yoga as dharma, which means “the natural order,” this includes such timeless ideals as compassion, respect, honesty, and integrity.  

Of course, this emphasis doesn’t preclude more practical skills – clearly, disciplines such as science and the arts are also part of the greater order of life, and should therefore also be part of our studies.  However, the Yogis believed these worldly skills should always be taught after higher principles, for the crucial reason that, without such an anchor, we tend to get lost in personal desires at the expense of learning about our connection with and responsibility to the people around us.  In other words, if we start by focusing on what we are good at or enjoy, we tend to miss out on far greater issues such as mutual dependence.

By contrast, when we learn these core values first, the Yogis observed that this actually puts us in a better position to find, achieve, and enjoy our unique talents.  When we know why our work truly matters, we are able to engage in it far more passionately and with far greater wisdom, finding not only our passions and skills, but also how they might best serve those who serve us.

This particular aspect of brahmacharya is reflected in another use of the word, which is as a term for celibacy.  This comes from the fact that the Yogis believed we should hold off on matters such as sexuality until we have a solid understanding of both ourselves and our world.  Again, this isn’t because they opposed sexuality, but rather because they believed we are able to love more deeply and enjoy that love more fully when we first have an appreciation of such core values as kindness, commitment, and self-knowledge.  In this sense, the first quarter of life is devoted to learning the principles that will make both our work and our relationships truly healthy, rich, and rewarding.

Brahmacharya Today

Of course, living in a diverse society such as our own, it is natural to assume that it might be hard for us to come to an agreement on what such core principles should be.  As a result, it’s understandable that we, as a culture, have decided to set aside the idea of higher principles in school, asking parents to take responsibility for the teaching of such values while our teachers focus instead on the more practical aspects of education.

That much said, the results we are currently experiencing are testimony to the fact that it may be time to consider a different approach.  Our mastery of individual disciplines is clearly not matched by an equal appreciation of such ideals as compassion, integrity, mutual respect, and trust.  By presuming that these values are better taught at home than in school, we have in fact deprived our children of a chance to learn side-by-side with their peers the most valuable things they all have in common.  In addition, the Yogic view is that we have actually taken out of our schools the very principles our children need in order to live successful and happy lives.

The good side is that it is not impossible to change this.  While it is true that we all have certain beliefs that are unique to our heritage or chosen spiritual tradition, we still have a body of values we all share and which we can return to our educational curriculum without going against our individual beliefs.  By once again making the instilling of such values the priority of education, we can help our children to be as rooted in core principles such as kindness and self-awareness as they are in academic skills, giving them the integrity and character necessary to live responsible and rewarding lives.

The Second Stage: Grihastha or House-Holder

After the brahmacharya period comes the grihastha or householder stage.  In the grihastha stage, we devote our energy to our career and family, most especially supporting our children so they can focus on the brahmacharya stage.  By this time, our own parents have moved on to the next stage, in part to provide room for us to take responsibility for our own careers and the welfare of our families, however they are still available to provide suggestions on managing the household when we could use their wisdom.

Obviously, the grihastha stage is very familiar here in the west, but there are some important differences in the Yogic approach.  The first is that the Yogis believed, even when we become householders, we are still responsible for maintaining the spiritual emphasis we developed in our youth – that is, we should be sure to never let the material take precedence over the spiritual.  In fact, as the heads of our households, we have an even greater spiritual responsibility, as we must not only maintain these priorities but also model them for our children.

The second – and most significant – difference between our view of household life and that of the Yogis is duration.  Traditionally, the Yogis believed we should only remain grihastha until our children are old enough to marry and start a household of their own.  Once they reach this stage, in the Yogic perspective, it is essential for us to move on to the next stage, and the Yogis held this view for three very important reasons.

First, the Yogis realized that our children cannot step into the responsibilities of running a household and business if we are still there.  If they are under our shadow, it will be hard for them to find their own approach and trust their insights, and even harder to take full responsibility.  Of course, this doesn’t mean we cannot provide support and guidance when asked, but this only works if we are sufficiently removed that they can be fully confident that the final decision is their own.

Second, the Yogis realized that the grihastha stage is just one quarter of life.  Of course, it is a highly valuable one, just like all the other stages, and crucial for both society and the continuation of family.  However, they realized it’s essential for us to understand that the householder stage is just one segment and should not be given undue emphasis or length.  Given the fact that our material being is arguably quite minor next to the spiritual, it makes sense that the material focus of our lives should not outweigh our focus on higher principles.  For this reason, it is crucial to know when it is time to let go of the worldly and shift our attention to the next phase.

The last reason for the comparative brevity of the grihastha stage is once again in the example we set for our children.  Just as we need to demonstrate what it means to be good parents, workers, and community members, we also need to show that there is more to life than careers and possessions, and we do this by how we move into and embody the next stage of life.  Known as vanaprastha or the “retired stage,” this next phase involves moving from the worldly back to the spiritual, and it has a far more important and specific role in Yogic culture than in our own, as we’ll discuss next.

The Third Stage: Vanaprastha or “Retired”

As we step down from our role as head of the household in order to make room for our children, we return to the spiritual emphasis of brahmacharya, but with two important differences.  Obviously, when we are children, we know that our worldly obligations lie ahead of us, while during the vanaprastha stage those responsibilities are behind.  As mentioned before, even during this stage, we are still available to our children when they need our advice, but the responsibilities of business and family rest firmly on their shoulders, allowing us to focus on the spiritual.  This act of stepping away is reflected in the name, which literally means “forest dweller” – that is, leaving home for a life free of material distractions.

The second significant difference from our concept of retirement is once again the ideal of modelling.  When we are children, we follow the spiritual examples of our elders, learning from their behavior.  Then, when we are grihastha, we model for our children what it means to be responsible parents and citizens, even as we observe from our parents what it means to return to the spiritual.  Then, when we move to the vanaprastha stage, we model for our adult children how to graciously and mindfully move from worldly to spiritual emphasis, just as our parents modelled this for us.

This aspect of vanaprastha is especially relevant for our age.  As mentioned before, we know we live in a culture that tends to see both aging and retirement as forms of obsolescence rather than something to respect and revere.  In the Yogic approach, our years after the householder phase are considered far more important than our worldly accomplishments, in part because the Yogis realized spiritual wisdom is far harder to achieve – and far more valuable – than worldly talents.  This means that modelling the spiritual for our family is even more important than householder responsibilities, making our movement to the vanaprastha stage one of ascension rather than decline.

The Fourth Stage: Sannyas or Renunciate

A final, significant difference between vanaprastha and our view of retirement is the fact that it is not the final stage of life in the Yogic view.  Just like the grihastha phase, our time as vanaprastha is in fact dictated by the development of our family.  When our grandchildren have completed the brahmacharya stage and are ready to become grihastha, it is of course time for our children to become vanaprastha – making room for their children to take over, as we did for them.  And, just as we made room for our children in the household world, now we make room for them in the spiritual by moving to the next stage.

The reasons for this transition are similar – if we were still actively present, expressing our opinions on family or spiritual matters, we would keep our children and grandchildren from stepping into their own responsibilities.  In fact, if we were to cling to our roles, we would not only stop our children from moving forward, but would model behavior that might lead them to do the same when their time came, essentially creating a “developmental block” that could ripple down through generations.

For this reason, as our children become vanaprastha, we become sannyas, or renunciates.  As the name suggests, sannyas are those who have let go of all worldly responsibilities in order to put their full attention on the spiritual.  In contrast with the vanaprastha stage, in which we are still available to our children for worldly guidance, we now devote ourselves entirely to our spiritual work, providing inspiration and guidance in that area as we once did on the material plane.

Once again, in doing so, we model healthy and wise priorities, showing our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren the natural evolution of our lives.  In short, where we had at one point been worldly patriarchs and matriarchs, we now become true spiritual role-models for our family, providing spiritual stability in the same way we once provided material comfort and care.

As you can see, instead of a descent or decline, this movement to the final quarter of our lives becomes a rise to ever-greater spiritual strength and clarity.  Even as our bodies naturally fade, our faith, compassion, and wisdom grow stronger.  This allows us to rise higher still in the respect of our families and communities, providing the example they need to order to honor their worldly obligations while never losing sight of the higher spiritual values around which a balanced and healthy life always revolves.

In Our Next Article…

We hope this exploration of the four ashramas has offered some insights, not only for the flow of your own life, but also in how you might think of and support the growth of your children and grandchildren, your partner, and your parents.  In our next article, we’ll once again change topics as we explore another reader question, this time on the differences and complementary benefits of yoga and the Chinese art of qigong.  Until then, as always, wishing you the very best in “Living Yoga….”

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