What is householder yoga?

Yoga is often translated as “union.” The Sanskrit root, yuj, means to yoke or join. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali outlines the journey of Samadhi, becoming one with Source, in 196 brief sayings. In actual practice, yogis find that the journey requires navigating a vast continuum of opposing forces. These polar opposites create tension, not just in the body but also beyond the body.

During asana, we are often acutely aware of physical tension (think of the stretch through the hamstrings during Paschimottanasana, the full forward bend), but we experience tension in the mind and spirit as well. For example, we may long for the simplified life of the sannyasin–the contemplative sheltered within the walls of the ashram–but most of us live in the everyday world of monthly budgets, to-do lists, computers and cell phones, dirty dishes, etc. Though we strive to rise above the distractions of daily life, we can also get caught up in its many pleasures … and then often feel guilt when we do.

Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen–who has also been an ordained Zen monk and notorious ladies’ man–understands the push-pull of the spiritual journey.  In “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” he gently chides: “You live your life as if it’s real.” This echoes what Patanjali wrote some two thousand years ago, that the world as we know it is an illusion of our own making, and that true peace lies beyond.  Or as Cohen writes, “You lose your grip, and then you slip into the masterpiece.” This, in a nutshell, is the yogic path– losing the self (the grip of individual ego) to find the Self (the ultimate reality or masterpiece).

But, unlike the contemplative, we who travel the path as householders can live a “thousand kisses deep,” using the experiences of everyday life to discover the divine. Seen though the lens of yoga,  the everyday becomes nuanced and layered with meaning. Isn’t there something transcendent about a freshly baked loaf of bread? Or a flower opened to the light? A colorful sunset or purring cat? Though we can get snared by the senses, we can also use them as a springboard.

Ah, but what about a garden of weeds? A streaked window or sink full of dishes?  Even  the dullest household task is an opportunity for practicing presence or mindfulness. As Swami Sivananda Saraswati instructed students, “Put your heart, mind, intellect, and soul even to your smallest acts. This is the secret of success.”

Historically, the system of yoga wasn’t meant only for the contemplative. And today it isn’t solely the realm of the gym rat. Sure, you can meditate for peace and enlightenment and “do yoga” to gain tight buns or washboard abs, but it’s within that vast ground in the middle, between the sannyasin and the gymnasium, that most of us reside. This is grihastha dharma, the middle path of the householder.

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