Yoga for Life.
When we think of yoga in stages what comes to mind? We may think of kriya yoga as a preparation for taking up deeper inquiry. We may think of the 8 fold path of yoga as stages of preparation towards meditation. We may think of the stages of samadhi from gross to subtle. However, in my experience when I talk about levels of practice most immediately think of the Beginner/Intermediate/Advanced framework of many modern yoga classes. This framework often centers asana as the foundation for levels of difficulty and encourages attainment of flexibility or strength as a marker of success. While I am not lamenting asana as a practice it is helpful to go deep(er) and shift our perspective on yoga stages as an approach to sustain practice throughout life.
As Ramaswami writes…
“It was my acaryas contention that the disillusionment of many yogabhyasis with yoga results from their practicing asanas without the yamas, niyamas, vinyasas, pratikriyas, synchronous breathing, and work with the bandhas and instead with a nervous urgency to achieve quick results.”Srivatsa Ramaswami, Yoga for the three stages of life.
Sir has authored/co-authored several books. I recommend keeping them all in your library. However if you only ever purchase one my recommendation would be this one: “Yoga for the Three Stages of Life.” Sir cautions that it is not for beginners but rather for those who have been practicing atleast asana for some time and have a general understanding of what yoga practice is. While there are many techniques included and instructions and detail around their use the main value of this book is the beautiful way in which Sir invites us to deeper inquiry through story, history and the applicaiton of yoga not as a rushed “level up” process but instead as a lifelong relationship.
This article is not a summary of that important book. Instead I hope to share some insight i’ve gleaned from my time with Ramaswami on how to approach yoga with that very important marriage of abhyasa and vairagya as we move forward through our years in this form. Remember that yoga is a journey towards liberation, absolute peace of mind. As we shift and transform so too shall our practice to support us.
Yoga is both an art and science. 1000s of asana with even more vinyasas are available to us. Various pranayama techniques and varying forms in each are also there. Yoga can be a therapy to maintain proper health of body and mind (cikitsa). It is also ultimately a guiding philosophy by which to both live and transition from this life. A vast subject indeed is yoga and yoga sadhana. So what is introduced when?
Before taking a look at the three stages please remember that each practice does not exist in a vaccum. Yoga is a holistic system and so at all times we encourage exploration of that system at as a whole. That being said there are considerations for each stage.
The Three Stages:
The well known categories of life in the hindu philosophy are:
- Brahmacari: student
- Grahasta: householder
- Vanaprastha: retiree
- Sanyasin: renunciate, recluse
For each stage a particular approach is used. For example – the renunciate or the person coming to yoga quite late in life when the body/mind complex is aged and untended early on kriya yoga was certainly encouraged by Krishnamacharya as a purificaiton process for without kriya yoga the mind of the renunciate will continue to spin webs.
For the lifelong yogabhyasi though we can look to the first three stages of practice suggested by the Yoga Rahasya: Srsti/Vrddhi, Sthiti and Laya Krama
Stage 1: Vrddhi or Srsti krama. Yoga for youth
Vrddhi means increase or growth. Therefore vrddhi krama (called srsti krama in the yoga rahasya) is the first stage of life characterized by growth (deha) and creativity. Krishnamacharya said that this stage begins when “A person is fit to practice when they can eat by themselves.” Or as we say in the south… “start ’em young!”
The art form of yogasana is especially beneficial here for young people. Younger students tend to be more flexible both in body and mind. The body is growing and has not yet solidified in form so there is more articulation in the joints, elasticity in fascia etc (in general). The mind is not yet overloaded with information and rules so has a cleaner slate from which to learn. In this stage of life learning languages and skills is a bit easier. However due to the constant intake of information distraction is easy as the mind reaches out to learn about the world, their own body and the way they fit into it all. At this point it is helpful to focus on activity in a directed yet creative way. Learning a vast array of vinyasas with their coordinated long and smooth breathing (dirgha suksma) will keep the young person interested and will allow flexibilitiy and stability to be there from the get-go. Developing vinyasas and asana helps the young person to, as Patanjali puts it “not be swayed by the pairs of opposites” and therefore have a deeper grasp on their inner resources for calm, equinimity and sustained health.
Nathamuni’s Yoga Rahasya lists an extensive list of asana recommendations for youth (sepcifically students) including Sirsasana, Sarvangasana, Mahamudra, tadakamudra, baddhakonasana, baddhapadmasana, dandasana, pascimattanasana, purvatanasana, catuspadapitha, vajrasana, cakorasana, kraunchasana, shalabhasana, bhujangasana, vrscikasana, mayurasana, pinchamayurasana, padmasana, kukkutasana, garbhapindasana, kurmasana, yoganirsimhasana, uttana kurmasana, simhasana, garudasana, vatayanasana, gomukhasana, bharadvajasana, trivikramasana, urdhva kukkutasana, vasisthasana, marichyasana, halasana, matsyasana jathara parivrtti variations and dhanurasana, natarajasana, bherundasana, ganda bherundasana, sirsa dandasana, bakasana, bhekasana, makarasana, matsyasana, matsyendrasana, vrksasana, all the konasanas, kapotasana and ustrasana, parvatasana, uttamayurasana and their variations (vinyasas) (2.13-2.24). We see many of these asana and their coordinated vinyasas in the vinyasas krama system as laid out by Ramaswami. Not all of them will be appropriate for everyone long term but as a means of preservation it is helpful to learn these asana as a young person when they are available. This is how the tradition stays alive. Just because something isn’t helpful for me doesn’t mean it won’t be for you. The underlying purpose for the individual in asana is of course stability in the joints, flexibility of the musculoskeletal system as a whole: the management of rajs and tamas systemically. WIth the capacity to focus the mind and wrangle the wrestless body students may also enjoy vedic chanting and simple pranayama as an introduction to the antaranga.
Stage 2: Sthiti krama. Yoga for midlife
Sthiti means maintenance or “staying power”. Sthithi krama is the stage of life where the body has stopped growing and yet is not in an active state of decay. This would be “midlife.” in the modern era this is where most of us come to yoga practice. So what is helpful for this stage? At this stage we have many responsibilities that can not be avoided. Krishnamacharya did not encourage the path of renunciation but rather the path of integration. The asana practice is refined towards a few key vinyasas and mudra (Ramaswami says that of specific importance according to Krishnamacharya were pascimatanasana, viparita karani mudras and maha mudra). The focus overall shifts towards more variety and depth in pranayama. This stage of life the aspirant practices to build stability in the body and mind and keep disease at bay. Additionally the practitioner continues to set the foundation for the mind to enter deeper states of observation and meditation without forgoing their duties.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika writes that once the body has been stabilized through asana we should turn our attention to pranayama. Therefore in the sthiti krama we maintain asana enough to remain stable but turn our attention to more purification through pranayama.
Posture becoming established, a Yogi, master of himself, eating salutary and moderate food, should practice Pranayama, as instructed by his guru.
Respiration being disturbed, the mind becomes disturbed. By restraining respiration, the Yogi gets steadiness of mind
The Yoga Rahasya echos this by saying:
”The practice of yoganga is hard to follow and difficult to accomplish for householders generally in the world. A house [and all the associated responsibilities therin] is an abode of many obstacles” 2.39
My [Nathamuni’s] greatest opinion is that Pranayama is the most important in yoga-sadhana for householders. Through Pranayama, the mass of accumulated impurities in all the nadis goes out through the metabolic process” 2.46-2.47
and that through pranayama “the embodied householder attains purity of mind”2.48
Additionally this stage of life is where we begin to develop more our svadhyaya through study of texts. Maintaining health of body and mind we use the steady foundation built in the earlier years of sthira and sukha and use that to go further into all ashtanga yoga offers us. Overall the sthiti krama the focus shifts primarily to pranayama. The yoga rahasya points to ujjayi (and it’s variations), nadishodhana, suryabhedana and sitali as exceptionally important for the prevention of disease. (2.61)
Stage 3: Laya or Anta krama . Yoga for advanced age
“There is no death for the Puru?a– TKV Desikachar
because there is no change for it,
and what is death but change.”
Laya can be translated as absorption or dissolution. Laya yoga is the path of merging with a superior principle (purusha/atman/isvara/brahman). In this stage of life the body is in a more active state of decay (sarira) and release. Yoga practice here serves primarily as a gateway to prepare for the final transition. The yogabhyasi maintains enough asana to minimize bodily distractions and pranayama to nurture the life force and clean the subtle channels. However, the majority of the practice is geared towards the antaranga sadhana and the practice of dharana. While death is not isolated as an experienve for the elderly it is certainly a more blatant reality for the older generation. Remember, Patanjali says that even for the wise abhinivesa (fear of death) is the hardest obstacle (klesha) to overcome. So meditation on what does not die is important to the yogabhyasi with the aim of liberation from the spin cycle of samsara. The yogabhyasi here minimizes the outward route of the senses and spends more time in solitude fixing the mind on the eternal (ananta samapattibhyam).
He is not devoured by death, is not bound by his actions. The Yogi who is engaged in Samadhi is overpowered by none.
Therefore, while all limbs of yoga are encouraged for life, the focus shifts in the different stages. In our younger years we can learn and preserve the art of vinyasa for our physical and mental development and for the good of future generations. In our middle years we (as householders) have many duties that may prevent long practices of complex vinyasas and meditation- still we do well to explore more a balanced practice to ward off disease -focusing more on pranayama.. In our later retired years we have more time to ourselves and the capacity to dive deeper into yoga as a guiding philosophy and practice of connection and so the practice hinges on meditation. All of this is happening always but the focus changes. So what is advanced? Well, it depends on the stage of life. Ultimately thought an advanced practitioner has cultivated a more steady and easeful system to explore one’s true nature “tada drastuh svarupe avasthanam.” Yoga is ultimately a practice for the mind (samyama or antaranga sadhana).
Consistency is key and that the degree of practice determines the results. Still no effort is wasted in this journey. May we allow ourselves to adjust our expectations of what should/will be, to release attachments to the memory of what was, and to stay the course with enthusiasm and faith. Then yoga remains with us as a guide throughout the whole of our life.
See you tomorrow,