Hermitage Guidelines as per Swami Swatmarama
This is the description of the yoga hermitage as prescribed by the siddhas for the hatha yoga practitioners. The room of sadhana should have a small door, without aperture (window), holes or cracks, being neither too high nor too low. It should be spotlessly clean, wiped with cow manure and free from animals or insects. Outside, there should be an open platform with a thatched roof, a well and a surrounding wall (fence). The appearance of the hermitage should be pleasant. When we consider the specifications for the yoga hermitage, we will have to remember that they were probably ideal for that particular time and those climatic conditions. Needless to say, if we plan to establish a sadhana place now, we will have to make certain adaptations to suit present circumstances and facilities. However, we can use Swatmarama’s description as a basic guideline. Essentially, Swatmarama is saying that the hermitage should be simple, clean, practical and very natural. ‘Having a small door’ is suitable in a country where people grow no taller than five and a half feet, but some Europeans are six feet or more, so allowances must be made. ‘Without windows, holes or cracks’ was probably recommended to keep insects, rats and other pests from entering the sadhana room. Nowadays, however, windows can have fly screens attached, so there would be no harm in having a window or two as long as there are curtains. ‘No window’ may have been recommended so that the atmosphere would be dark and more conducive to internalizing the awareness and introverting the mind. A window could be a greatdistraction as the sadhaka’s attention could often be drawn to view the outside world and external happenings. The sadhana room should be ‘neither too high nor too low;’ if it is too high it would be difficult to clean and if it is too low it would be impractical for sadhana and for proper air circulation.
The recommendation that the sadhana room be kept ‘spotlessly clean’ is as applicable for today as it was then. If the mind is to be kept pure and unpolluted, it is essential that the environment be the same. Even the daily act of cleaning purifies the mind. The very thought of using cow manure may come as a shock to the western mind, but it is a well-known tradition in India. In the villages, even to this day, most homes have floors made of hard-packed earth. Every morning the women clean their homes and wipe the floors with fresh cow manure mixed with a little water. Cow manure is an excellent disinfectant and insecticide which has medicinal properties. What is cow manure anyway? Digested grass and the cow’s bodily secretions. Most importantly, it is a natural disinfectant, it does not contain harmful chemicals to give off gases which pollute the air, and it is cheap. Nature provides us with everything, but we have forgotten the simplicity of life. The sadhana room must be ‘free from insects and animals.’ At the time of sadhana there is nothing more distracting than mosquitoes, flies or other buzzing, crawling insects. Besides this, some mosquitoes carry malaria and many insects can give a painful sting or cause skin rashes. Animals should not be kept in the hermitage as they can be a great disturbance, requiring care, food and extra thought that can distract one’s energy from sadhana. Particularly when you first commence sadhana, the mind always looks for an excuse to stop the practices as it resents being centered on one particular point for too long. It will always try to prevent you from coming closer to the object of meditation. The mind will surely find good reason to be disturbed and externalized by annoying insects and animals, so a sadhaka should definitely avoid this problem. The ‘open platform’ with a thatched roof has probably been recommended as a sadhana place for the summer months when it is too hot to practice (especially pranayama) indoors. It could also be used for sleeping outside. In India most people prefer to sleep outdoors as it is cooler and closer to nature. Swatmarama has not omitted the necessity of a well. Not only is a fresh water supply essential for good health, but a practitioner of hatha yoga needs pure water for his daily purification practices as well as for drinking, bathing, toilet, cooking, etc. Neti, dhauti and kunjal require fresh water, and if you can avoid chlorinated and fluoridated water, these techniques are much more effective. Another reason why there should be a well in the hermitage is that a lot of time and energy can be lost if the yogi has to make several long and maybe arduous trips to a river to fetch water. Swatmarama is outlining instructions for intensive hatha yoga sadhana and, therefore, he gives prime importance to minimizing external distractions and conserving vital energy for the inward journey. If one’s hermitage is in a jungle or some other undeveloped area, a surrounding wall would serve the purpose of keeping out unwanted predators, particularly wild animals. Apart from this, if the hermitage is enclosed within a wall, its spiritual vibrations and magnetic power can be maintained and negative external influences will not be able to penetrate so easily. Thus a peaceful atmosphere can be maintained. All these recommendations have been given by yogis who have traversed the spiritual path and experienced the pitfalls and problems a sadhaka is likely to face. It should also be understood that these recommendations have an esoteric meaning as well. They indicate the way a sadhaka should structure himself and his mind. The mind has to be protected from outside influences and the body should have a good defense mechanism. The mind and body must be kept pure, simple and modest. Then they will cultivate spiritual vibrations, and conditions will be conducive for the atma to manifest itself. The structure of the hermitage is an external symbol of one’s own self and of what will be achieved through sadhana. Therefore, a sadhaka should try to live as simply and as self sufficiently as possible. His possessions should be kept to a minimum and his surroundings should always remain uncluttered and clean. Thereby he will have fewer mental distractions and worries and all his energy can be directed towards spiritual unfoldment.
Exerpts from HATHA YOGA PRADIPIKA, Translation by Swami. Mukthibodananda