Resources of the Himalayan Yoga Tradition

The 5 Pillars of Sadhana

This article is on the five pillars that support yoga practice. You can think of them like a flower with five petals, all interdependent.
These five are:

  • stillness
  • silence
  • fasting
  • celibacy/sexual continence
  • conquest of sleep

Upon first hearing of them, you might be frightened. "Do you mean I have to keep still, and not move at all?" Do "I have to maintain complete silence?" "So I can't have sex?" Etc.

Before running away screaming, let's take a few moments to understand these pillars, to see that they are not so frightening after all.

First, it is important to know that these pillars are supports, not commandments.
If practiced, they support your yoga practice, by helping calm and energize the mind and emotions. They make spiritual progress easier. If you do not practice them, nobody is going to come and force you to do so. There are no yoga police watching to be sure you do them.

Let's begin by looking at the first two Pillars of stillness and silence.

If you were going to meet and spend time with a person that you really wanted to get to know, it would be most helpful if you adopted certain behaviors to help the relationship get started and grow.

Psychotherapists know that one of the ways to quickly bond with another person is to mirror their body language. If you want to bond with someone who is walking, walk alongside them. If they are sitting, sit. If they are sitting in a relaxed manner, sit in a relaxed way in your chair.

So how does this apply to yoga? Well, the goal of yoga is to, as Swami Veda Bharati has said, come face to face with our inner-beloved, with the Truth that abides within us, is us. In order to have that face-to-face experience, it helps to act in a way that is similar to how Truth acts.

So how does Truth act? It turns out that the Truth is still. Truth is not jumping all around. So, if we want to befriend and get to know Truth, we need to be still too.

Thus stillness is one of the Five Pillars.

So what is meant by stillness?

Stillness is stillness of mind. We start with seeking stillness of body, and learn to acquire stillness of mind. It is though the finest part of mind, buddhi, that we perceive, and we need a still mind to perceive Truth. An agitated mind won't perceive anything so subtle as our True Self.

Similarly we can understand the reason for the second of the Five Pillars, Silence. As you know, when you want to get to know someone, you need to speak the same language. If you want to understand someone who speaks Chinese, you need to understand and speak Chinese, or to have a very good interpreter. However, since yoga is about directly experiencing Truth, so we don't use interpreters. Rather, we need to speak the language of Truth.

What is the language of Truth? Silence.

So, to know Truth, we practice silence. Fortunately, this is an easy language for us to learn because it is native to everyone, except we have not used it since we learned to talk. Yet it is easy to re-learn.

Practicing silence quiets the mind, and enables us to perceive that which is subtle. In silence, we can experience deeper levels of silence, and come more into harmony with our Inner-Beloved.

Now let's look at the next three Pillars.

Yoga philosophy says that there are four primitive fountains that strongly affect human emotions. They are Survival, Food, Sleep and Sex. These fountains have powerful energies which deeply affect our lives. If these energies are not balanced, we end up with emotional agitation and upset. So, the next three pillars, of fasting, celibacy and conquest of sleep, all deal with primitive fountains.

Swami Rama recommends a gentle discipline with regard to the primitive fountains with an intent to keep them balanced. For example with regard to food, we eat a moderate diet, not too much nor too little. The same applies to sex and sleep: The key word for the vast majority of practitioners is moderation. If you eat too much, heaviness both in body and mind results. Too much sex can lead to increased desire and distracting thoughts. Too much sleep leads to tamas, heaviness, and lethargy. On the other hand, too little of each of these also causes problems. This prescription allows us to satisfy these basic needs without excessive emotional agitation.

So, although rather strong words are used, like fasting, celibacy, and conquest of sleep, what is actually meant, for most students, is a gentle discipline. We fast by eating a moderate diet. We practice celibacy by practicing a little sexual continence, that is, by putting certain limits on our sexual activity. Perhaps we limit our sexual partners to one, such as our spouse, or, if not married, similarly limit our partners. We work with sleep by learning to sleep an amount that gives us sufficient rest without creating sluggishness. In addition, we can learn to the practice of yoga nidra to reduce the time we actually need to sleep.

One of the reasons we fear these Pillars is because we tend to think in an all or nothing way. We think, "Oh my God, I won't be able to have any sex!" Yet as we just mentioned, this is not the case. All of the Pillars can be practiced in moderation to great effect

Yoga is not about extremism. Nobody is trying to starve you or magically make you a eunuch. Nobody wants to ruin your marriage or keep you from the enjoyment of sleep. The truth is that we try to find a healthy moderation. It is only the most advanced practitioners who might practice these pillars in full form, and for them it comes naturally, and isn't an effort at all.

Truth is shy and elusive, and we want to be as quiet, undistracted, gentle and calm as possible, when setting out to meet Truth, so as to not scare it away. The practice of these five pillars greatly aids us in calming ourselves. This is why they are so important and useful on the path.