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The Modern Yogi: Adapting Ancient Wisdom to the Contemporary World

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About the Author :
Rajiv Ahuja is an associate director for Milken Institute, Health, where he advances aging policies and programs that support healthy longevity. His mission is to create lasting change through research, advocacy, and the formation of impact coalitions. He holds a master’s in Healthcare Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz School of Public Policy and a JD from American University in Washington, DC


Navigating Life’s Phases in the Modern World

As a modern yogi caught between ancient traditions and the contemporary world, I am evolving my playbook for life after work. Today, I am a householder, raising two kids with my wife, working in a think tank in Washington, DC, and fulfilling my social and familial responsibilities. In the traditional Hindu system of life, I am in the grihastha or working stage. My kids are brahmacharis; students focused on education and acquiring knowledge. In time, my children will grow up, and we will all transition to the next stage.

For me, the next stage in this ancient life structure is vanaprastha, one of withdrawal from worldly affairs. Vanaprastha is retirement – a transition between an active householder and the stage of renunciation. Traditionally, it is a time to focus on spiritual practices, self-reflection, and preparation for the final life stage of renunciation, or sannyasa. I find myself questioning this ancient wisdom and the relevance of vanaprastha. In today’s changing world, a lifetime spent acquiring knowledge, building a career, and establishing a life should not end with withdrawal and contemplation.

Vanaprastha: A Life of Retreat and Contemplation

Vanaprastha literally means ‘retirement to the forest.’ After work, individuals traditionally retreat to a quiet place to live a simpler, more contemplative life. Under this path, I would have embarked on a gradual withdrawal from the external world. I would have spent my time in introspection and spiritual contemplation, detached from the responsibilities and demands of society. Guided by the teachings of ancient wisdom, I would have sought solace in the tranquility of nature, nurturing my inner self and cultivating a deeper connection with the divine. While acknowledging generations of wisdom and tradition, I want to evolve the traditional expectations of vanaprastha, or retirement, to modern life.

Reflecting on Ancient Wisdom and Modern Insights

While vanaprastha emphasizes the importance of stepping back from the demands of the external world, modern society presents new perspectives and opportunities. The essence of vanaprastha lies not in isolation but in the power of connection.

We are living the good life. Life expectancy has increased significantly, offering an extended period for productivity and reinvention. Many of us will live more than 20 years after retiring. Some will live 40 more years. Technology has transformed societal structures and communities, helping individuals to stay engaged and seek purpose and fulfillment in the later stages of life. The good life allows us to keep learning, reinventing, and engaging far beyond when society tells us to withdraw.

Rather than disappearing in retirement, I strive for a harmonious integration of introspection and active participation in society. I recognize the need to contribute to the well-being of others and make a meaningful impact through my endeavors. With the benefit of longer and healthier lives, balancing ancient wisdom with the demands of the modern world becomes a more intriguing quest.

Adapting Retirement to the Modern Landscape

To adapt retirement to the contemporary world, we must reframe it as a gradual shift towards inner contemplation while maintaining active involvement in society. The emphasis shifts us from disengagement to active pursuit of physical health, financial well-being, and a sense of purpose. The modern yogi embraces new opportunities and challenges that align with their interests, skills, and passions. The modern yogi balances personal growth, spiritual practice, and meaningful contributions to society in the later stages of life.

Consider Maria, a retired teacher at a crossroads. In her modern journey, Maria recognizes that retirement is not the end but an opportunity to explore her passions and contribute meaningfully to her community. She becomes an advocate for adult literacy programs, using her teaching expertise to empower others with knowledge and skills. Through this, Maria finds purpose and fulfillment and ignites a movement of retired educators sharing their wisdom to bridge the educational gap.

Holistic Engagement and Self-Realization

The modern yogi recognizes the importance of holistic engagement. This entails pursuing endeavors aligned with one’s passion and purpose, embracing social responsibilities, and nurturing relationships. Simultaneously, there is a dedication to personal growth through spiritual practices, self-inquiry, and exploration of higher consciousness. This integrated approach allows for self-realization while positively impacting the surrounding world. In the evolving playbook for retirement, any pursuit nurtures:

  • Purpose: Seek activities and pursuits that bring personal fulfillment while making meaningful contributions to your community. This may involve pursuing lifelong passions, volunteering, mentoring younger generations, or starting new ventures. The goal is to remain actively engaged in society and leverage accumulated wisdom and experience for the betterment of oneself and others.

Consider Maya, a lawyer who, at the pinnacle of her career, finds herself grappling with a sense of emptiness. Frustrated by the pursuit of material success, Maya embarks on a journey of self-exploration. Instead of resigning from her job, she gradually transitions into a role that allows her to combine her legal expertise with her passion for social justice. By providing pro bono legal services to marginalized communities, Maya finds a sense of purpose.

  • Learning and Personal Growth: Emphasize intellectual stimulation and acquire new knowledge and skills. Older individuals have a wealth of wisdom and experience they can share through teaching, writing, or participating in intergenerational dialogues. This becomes an opportunity for self-reflection, introspection, and deepening one’s understanding of life’s meaning and purpose.
  • Wellness and Self-Care: Prioritize maintaining physical, mental, and emotional well-being. This may involve adopting healthy lifestyle habits, exercising regularly, practicing mindfulness and meditation, and nurturing social connections. Individuals in this stage can continue to contribute and engage meaningfully with others by taking care of themselves.
  • Meaning and Engagement: Truly engage by seeking meaningful connections, both online and offline, nurturing relationships that enrich our lives and foster a sense of belonging. By actively engaging in activities that align with our passions and values, we make a genuine impact and contribute to a more purpose-driven world.

Beyond Individual Journeys

Beyond solitary odysseys, a redefined retirement fosters communal engagement and sparks lasting societal transformations. Picture a small neighborhood grappling with environmental challenges and social inequality. A group of modern-day retirees gather to establish a community garden and educational center. Through gardening, workshops, and outreach programs, they revitalize their local environment and empower individuals from diverse backgrounds to connect, learn, and grow. This communal effort transcends individual paths to create a collective sense of purpose and engagement.

One real-world interpretation is the “Age-Friendly Cities” movement, where communities design urban environments that cater to the needs of all age groups. These cities become vibrant, inclusive spaces, offering accessible infrastructure, social support networks, and opportunities for intergenerational interactions. By incorporating vanaprastha’s principles into the fabric of urban planning, societies can create environments that honor the wisdom and dignity of older adults, fostering belonging and interdependence.

Another exemplary initiative is the “Elders as Mentors” program, which pairs retired professionals with aspiring entrepreneurs, providing invaluable guidance and support. Through this intergenerational collaboration, the program empowers older adults to continue sharing their expertise and cultivates a sense of purpose and relevance, bridging the generation gap and fostering mutual respect.

Call To Action: Enabling the Modern Retirement Playbook

Despite the differences between traditional and modern paths, the essence of vanaprastha remains profoundly relevant. In a fast-paced world driven by material pursuits, it serves as a reminder to pause and recalibrate our lives, ensuring that we do not lose sight of our deeper purpose amid the distractions of modernity. Embracing modern principles of retirement on a societal level requires a collective shift in mindset. It demands that we challenge ageist attitudes, reshape employer practices, and dismantle barriers that hinder the full participation of older adults in our communities. It necessitates policies and initiatives that promote inclusivity, equitable access to health care, and opportunities for meaningful engagement.

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