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The four aims of life

From dharma and artha, to kama moksha, the purusharthas can help to liberate and set us free.

By Andrea Marcum

Did lockdown life leave you feeling uninspired like a mindless vinyasa? Maybe a bit unmotivated, limited, linear, and constricted? In pandemic times (or any times), we get stuck in our patterns and habits (samskara) and life can feel like a song we’re sick of hearing but can’t get off repeat.

But wait! We can use our yoga practice to free ourselves from routine. Like downward dog is the scaffolding for future handstands built into every vinyasa, moksha (liberation) can be found in the folds of every single day.

In yoga philosophy, the Four Aims of Life (purusharthas) lead us away from our broken record to a symphony of potentials, guiding us to our true self (purusha) and a sense of purpose and universal values. These four steps are your compass on this roadmap to freedom:

  1. Dharma is our ultimate – some might say divine – path. Dharma is the vision; the way we can see and move through the daily grind of how-it’s-always-been or the-way-we-always-do-it. It’s how we stretch and move from same-old to something more expansive.
  2. Artha (goals) is the means to skillful action towards our dharmic (ultimate) path. The goals of artha and the vision of dharma are our gateway to a deeper understanding of who we are and what truly matters.
  3. Kama (pleasure) is the delicious result of exploring this highest self.
  4. Moksha (liberation) is freedom from cycles of behaviour, thoughts, and beliefs that keep us down.

The sum of our Four Aims is to allow our vinyasa to become a vibrant ritual instead of a tedious repetition – motivating music instead of a lacklustre loop. Said another way, the Aims create the opportunity for our movements, on and off our mat, to evolve into deliberative, progressive reflection towards something better. When we develop the Aims of Life, we set ourselves free.

I see this play out most readily in the retreats I lead. Typically, students clamour into the yoga room on their first day with pieces of same-old lodged deeply enough that they’ve not yet shaken them. A familiar restlessness finds its way into our first class. Some even set their cell phones next to their mat like life rafts in a sea of bothersome tranquillity.

By day two, things are already different. There are pink stripes where sunblock has been missed, a few bug bites, and there’s been a palpable shift. Anxiety has given way to a more relaxed, less distracted attitude. They’ve stepped outside of their norm and, little by little, the demands of city life (real and/or imagined) have given way to kama (pleasure).

Think of these Four Aims – dharma, artha, kama and moksha – as your own inspiriting retreat – one that will unlock lockdown limitation and lead you to limitless liberation.

Andrea Marcum

Andrea Marcum is a yoga teacher, retreat leader & author. You can find her online classes at andreamarcum.com