The primary quest of a yogi is to discover, follow, and live their dharma. The essence of dharma (right action or duty) is doing the right thing and doing it all the time. This “right thing” is dependent on your personal obligations, purpose in life, talents, privileges, and societal duties. Practicing dharma “all the time” is constantly striving to align your work, social life, diet, values, and other choices to support a path of right livelihood.
While dharma is a simple idea—finding and following a unique purpose in life—this yogic concept has a surprising amount of depth and complexity. The key to finding your personal path lies in fully understanding, contemplating and using four complex and interdependent processes of dharma.
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The four nested layers of dharma range in scope from the universal to the personal. Since the larger layers govern the smaller ones it is best to explore your dharma using a top down approach. Each layer should be individually contemplated, refined, and followed to help produce the clarity and guidance to find and live your individual life purpose. You will also have an easier time finding and following your personal dharma if all four layers are in harmony with each other.
The largest layer of dharma is rita-dharma. This encompasses the forces of nature, laws of physics, movement of galaxies, and the divine order of the universe. There are several yoga related systems that address dharmic influences on this scale. The ancient yogis saw the universe cycling through four yugas of 432,000 years each with the current phase being the Kali Yuga, an age of darkness and ignorance. Jyotisha, Vedic astrology, seeks to chart the connections between the motions of the planets and stars and one’s choices, beliefs, and personality. Ayurveda is a healing science that prescribes herbs, diet and lifestyle based on the patterns of energy of the natural world and season of the year. Researching, contemplating, and understanding these global and universal patterns may provide insights on the more intimate layers of dharma.
The next layer of dharma is varna-dharma. This includes our roles and responsibilities towards our culture, community, family, and relationships. It is important to know the difference between your inner narrative story and the obligations, privileges, and societal duties that you inherited upon birth. Varna-dharma is not peer pressure, complacency or conformity but does encourage you to respect laws, have ethics, and live in harmony around other people. Over the centuries yogis have developed a code of conduct, the yamas and niyamas, to provide specific guidelines on “doing the right thing” at this level of dharma.
The third layer is ashrama-dharma. The older you become the more obvious it becomes how your stage of life influences and guides your path in life. Your age has a strong influence on your body, mind, personality, and relationship to the world around you. Yogis have specific guidelines on the type and depth of yoga practices best suited to one’s stage of life and most life-long yogis will intuitively shift from a strong physical yoga practice towards more meditative and internal practices as they age.
The last and most intimate layer is swa-dharma, your individual path or unique role in life that is influenced and determined by your ego, mind, DNA, karma, and samskaras. This layer of dharma is not necessarily a talent you were born with or even something you are good at doing. Your swa-dharma is a yearning or calling for you to become someone greater than who you currently are. Realizing your swa-dharma is difficult as it requires uncovering your inner nature, discovering the subtle energies and patterns that drive your desires and personality, objectively seeing your ego and its projections, and carefully examining your dark and hidden samskaras. Most yoga practices are helpful to create the state of mind and purity of thought to see this dharma clearly.
The technique to finding your personal dharma is simple but the practice can be challenging as it requires a strong focused mind, deep contemplation, and an abundance of patience. Begin to cultivate awareness and mindfulness of four types of dharma. Journal and map out the four dharma quadrants with your current knowledge of them. Actively seek to add and clarify the info in each layer. Look for patterns and common influences that span all four layers of dharma.
You can also contemplate inquiry questions such as: What do you feel is your greatest gift to the world? What can you give to your community to make it a better place? What brings you the most joy, inner-peace or happiness? What makes you feel fulfilled? What gives you the most relief from suffering?
Once you have a dharmic map charted sit with it in deep contemplation and listen for anything that stirs your soul or awakens your heart center. Having and maintaining a strong yoga and meditation practice during this work will be very helpful. As you begin to receive insight and ideas about your dharma you may find it helpful to share these with a good friend for feedback and clarity.