The hatha yogi should live alone in a hermitage and practice in a place the length of a bow, where there is no hazard from rocks, fire, or water, and which is situated in a well-governed and virtuous kingdom where good alms are easily attained. The room should be without holes or cracks, neither too high nor too low; and it should be spotlessly clean, plastered with cow manure, and free from animals and insects. The hermitage should be pleasing in appearance, surrounded by a wall, and have an open platform with a thatched roof and a water well.
What? You mean you don’t have a room plastered with cow dung? You don’t reside in a hermitage where good alms are easily attained? Well, perhaps you do, and don’t realize it—or perhaps you can create a space which meets the intention behind this advice from Svatmarama, the medieval-era author of the classic yoga text the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
A hermitage is a quiet place removed from preoccupations, and dedicated to yoga.
First, let’s look at living alone in a hermitage. Solitary hermitage living is probably not going to happen, you say—after all, many of us like living with family or friends in a community. For most of us, living removed from society is not necessary, or even a good idea. But consider Svatmarama’s intention. In this context, a hermitage is a quiet place set aside from social obligations and worldly life, and dedicated to yoga. By definition, the hermitage provides the needs of daily life and creates a haven where the usual preoccupations with ambition, family, and finances are set aside. Those preoccupations can easily chase you from room to room around the house, but is it possible to create a “hermitage” right in your own home?
As for basic physical requirements, we’re fortunate in the West in that most of us live in climate-controlled, physically secure homes where basic needs like food and water are relatively easily met. On a day-to-day basis, we are not at the mercy of the elements, nor do we need to beg for alms. For us, “good alms” means a supportive livelihood, a daily routine, and planning ahead for healthy meals. In our lives, a “well-governed and virtuous kingdom” starts with peace in the family, so it is always best to avoid using our spiritual aspirations to justify neglecting family commitments. Remember: a peaceful, well-governed environment supports a peaceful, well-governed mind.
Designing Your Space
Within your hermitage, you’ll want to create your “hazard-free” personal practice place. The mind is deeply conditioned by place, and associates activities with that place. Just think about your living space: in the kitchen, the eye is drawn to the refrigerator; one expects amusing pleasures in the living room; and the bedroom invites sleep—or shopping in the closet. Since a repeated activity in a particular space cues a particular behavior, why not use this tendency of the mind to support good habits?
Not everyone can dedicate an entire room to practice, but the length of a bow (4–5 feet) is surely manageable, and an out-of-the-way corner in a quiet room will work just fine. Your space should be pleasing and beautiful to you, and otherwise comfortable. Keep it simple and spotlessly clean—but here’s the good news: you probably don’t need the cow dung which even today is used in India to keep the dust down and insects at bay. Do, however, watch out for hazards. Modern “rocks, fire, and water” include things like damp, dank rooms with unhealthy air, clutter, useless furniture, numerous beeping and flashing electronic devices, family members and pets wanting attention, street noise, unfinished household projects, and just plain “stuff.”
In short, your space should minimize distractions and destabilizing influences. Our minds tend to constantly monitor the environment for both opportunities (like cookies in the kitchen) or threats (like unpaid bills on the desk). Your space should protect you from the possibility that your housemates will knock you over when opening the door—and should offer no temptations like responding to texts or checking Facebook. Set up your dedicated practice space to be harmonious with the larger context of the room and your living quarters and adopt the Goldilocks strategy: not too big, not too small; not too hot, not too cold; not too bright, not too dim; not too crowded, not too austere.
Making Time for Practice
Once you have established your place, consider time. Like space, time also conditions the mind. The mind anticipates activities or experiences repeated at about the same time in a cycle: daily, weekly, or yearly. As many of us know first-hand, if you have a cookie every day at 4:00, you crave a cookie every day at 4:00. Yoga practice is like that. If you meditate every morning at 6:30, your mind turns toward meditation every morning at 6:30. If you do asana at the end of the work day, your body will remind you of its need accordingly. Here’s another opportunity to use the natural mental tendencies to establish good habits!
The subtle governing forces of the body and mind are nurtured and fed by your practice—whether it is asana, prayer, meditation, relaxation—and with regular practice, those subtle forces begin to grow and expect to be fed. Your body will demand its asana practice; your mind will be ill at ease if you skip your meditation practice. Your higher self is being nurtured by your practice as surely as your body is nourished by eating lunch every day at noon, so don’t starve your higher self by skipping its “meals”! And to make sure you hear the call for attention, practice as close to the same time every day as you can.
A dedicated space and time will help manifest your desire to find inner wisdom and strength by landing your good intentions squarely in day-to-day life. With a regular time and a dedicated space, the habit of practice strengthens, and soon you will find yourself sitting down happily to enjoy your very own hermitage.