Rox Does Yoga

Musings on Everything Yoga

Books: Karma-Yoga, by Swami Vivekananda December 8, 2011

Filed under: books,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:15 pm
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Swami Vivekananda lived from 1863 to 1902 and is best known for his address at the Parliament of Religions in 1893, which helped to bring Hinduism to the modern world as a major religion. Vivekananda wrote a number of books, some of which are based on his lectures, and Karma-Yoga is one of these. Karma-Yoga has been reprinted many times over the past hundred years; the copy that I read,  borrowed from a college library, is a tiny little book, maybe 4″ x 5″, and only 143 pages. Because the book was published so long ago, you can read the whole thing online, so feel free to check it out! If you’re interested in the topic, this book is well worth the time.

In this book, Vivekananda expands on the concept of Karma yoga as set out in the Bhagavad Gita. Vivekananda covers a variety of topics related to karma, including work, action, character, motivation, morality, duty, and non-attachment. While Vivekananda’s explication of Karma yoga really moved me and helped me to understand how the path of Karma yoga can work in my life, I’ll try to keep this post focused on what Vivekananda writes, and I’ll follow up with another post on my personal response to the text.

Vivekananda begins by providing an introduction to the concept of Karma and work. For Vivekananda, a person’s character reflects that person’s will, which is shown through their work. He states,

Watch a man do his most common actions; those are indeed the things which will tell you the real character of a great man. Great occasions rouse even the lowest of human beings to some kind of greatness, but he alone is the really great man whose character is great always, the same wherever he be (5).

Karma, or work/action, is the means by which we each build our character. Our actions, our work, build us into who we become: doing good works reinforces good character, and constantly doing evil work builds a bad character. Therefore it’s possible for someone to change his character through his actions.

Vivekananda also discusses the motive for work: one shouldn’t work for money or fame or even the results of our work, but simply for the work’s sake. Removing selfish motives from our work builds self-control and character. He describes how the ideal person can find balance between a quiet, solitary spiritual practice and life in the world. Such a person can be in the middle of the densest city traffic and his mind will be as if he’s in a cave by himself; whether in a city or a cave, he’s intensely working at all times.

Vivekananda describes how the concept of morality and duty varies greatly depending on the country or culture: what’s considered right and moral in one country can be thought wrong and evil in another. Vivekananda argues that for this reason there can’t be a universal morality or sense of duty, but that each person must act according to what is deemed right and good in his or her own culture. Vivekananda recommends that we try to view each person’s actions through their own eyes rather than judging that person by our own standards of duty, especially when meeting people from another culture. If we view them by our standards, we may think they are acting wrongly or strangely, but if we try to understand their actions in the context of that person’s culture, we may see that the person’s actions are right and good to him. Every person should work to accomplish his own ideal, according to his own skills and abilities; if you take up someone else’s ideals, you can never hope to make progress. He then explains that one person’s duty isn’t higher or lower than another person’s; even working at hard physical labor can count towards spiritual progress if it’s approached with the right attitude.

Vivekananda also discusses the idea of non-attachment. Each person must constantly work, because it’s in our nature as human beings, but the only way to truly make our work count is to be unattached to the results of the work. Vivekananda compellingly describes how attachments affect the mind as well as how non-attachment relates to love, self-sacrifice, and charity, and how all of these come together: being able to love perfectly, without attachment, we are able to give freely of ourselves to others without worrying about how it will affect us. Vivekananda uses the powerful image of the grumbling worker: if you’re grumbling and complaining about your work, that means you’re attached to it; all your duties will seem distasteful and you’ll never be satisfied. However, if you’re able to do the work for the work’s sake, without attachment, you’ll find satisfaction and freedom.

Vivekananda states that no action can ever be completely good or completely bad: even the most kindly meant action can have negative consequences, and even the foulest evil act can result in some good. Because Karma results from every action, there’s no way to attain perfection simply by doing good works, because each good work will also have some negative effect. This is where non-attachment comes in: you continue to work and strive to do good, but free yourself from attachment to the results of the action. You set yourself aside, removing all selfish wish for praise or reward, and do your duty because it’s right to do your duty.

At the end of the book, Swami Vivekananda sums up his views on Karma yoga:

Karma-Yoga, therefore, is a system of ethics and religion intended to attain freedom through unselfishness and by good works. The Karma-Yogi need not believe in any doctrine whatever. He may not believe even in God…. He has got his own special aim of realising selflessness; and he has to work it out himself. Every moment of his life must be realisation, because he has to solve by mere work, without the help of doctrine or theory, the very same problem to which the Jnani applies his reason and inspiration and the Bhakta his love (131-2).


Yoga and Christianity, Part 3: No, We’re Not Satanists December 6, 2011

Filed under: yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:19 pm
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My husband gleefully sent me the following link: Vatican Exorcist Specialist Says Yoga Is The Devil’s Exercise. The Devil? Seriously? I had to go look up more information on this one. Here’s an article in the Telegraph and another from the Vatican Insider, both of which include more information and responses from the yoga community in Italy.

Since there are only a few direct quotes from Father Amorth in this article, I’ll go ahead and refute them, on both logical grounds and on “you don’t have the first idea what yoga is about” grounds. First of all, Father Amorth says that practicing yoga leads to Hinduism, but doing one thing does not ever automatically lead to another. If I have one beer, that doesn’t automatically lead me to alcoholism; for people who have natural tendencies toward alcoholism, having one beer might lead them in that direction, but it wouldn’t do so for everyone. Practicing yoga doesn’t automatically lead anyone to Hinduism (nor can Hinduism be compared to something negative like alcoholism in any way, I was just using that as an example, since that’s the sort of mindset Father Amorth seems to be imagining). Most people who practice yoga, especially in the US, have very little connection to yoga’s Hindu roots besides learning a few Sanskrit words.

Father Amorth also states that “all eastern religions are based on a false belief in reincarnation”. First of all, way to generalize: I find it inadvisable ever to make claims about “all” of anything. Also, while it’s one thing to disagree with the concept of reincarnation, it’s something else entirely to respect the beliefs of other cultures and peoples – to say “I disagree” is a far better statement than “You’re wrong”. And finally, what on earth does Hinduism or reincarnation have to do with the Devil or Satanism? It seems that Father Amorth is really saying that people who practice faiths other than Catholic Christianity are going straight to hell. Official Vatican communications do tend to be respectful of other faiths, so I think we can assume that Father Amorth is not speaking on behalf of the Pope. It’s just troubling that there will be some people out there who read what Father Amorth has said and think that it’s official Catholic policy.

The Telegraph article does reference some of Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings on yoga from before he became Pope, and this I find interesting. Apparently, in 1999, Ratzinger warned of “the dangers of yoga, Zen, transcendental meditation and other ‘eastern’ practises” (as described by the Telegraph), and how these practices can “degenerate into a cult of the body”. I could actually see that as a valid warning as regards the sort of yoga practiced in the US today: most yoga is very focused on the body and doesn’t spend any time at all on meditation or the mind. Further, yoga trends like “power yoga”, competitive yoga, and even just practicing yoga using mirrors can reinforce that yoga is only about the physical. However, there are a lot of other fitness practices and techniques that could encourage a “cult of the body”. What does Cardinal Ratzinger have to say about bodybuilding, aerobics, and pilates? Does he frown on modern dance too, or ballet, or, heck, sports in general? Further, to imply that Zen or other meditation practices could lead to a cult of the body is completely wrong: meditation is all about the mind. I can only assume that the writer of the Telegraph article is misquoting or misunderstanding the original document, because it seems like a very weird statement to make about meditation, and I’d expect Ratzinger to be better educated than that. (And I don’t have the time today to try to look up the original document, so if anyone wants to investigate this further, feel free.)

One thing I like is the response from Giorgio Furlan, founder of the Academy of Yoga in Rome, quoted in the Vatican Insider article. He said that his yoga practice helped to bring him back to his Catholic roots. This is the sort of thing that Christians should be paying attention to, but of course, the exorcist is the one getting all the press!


Books: The Upanishads, translated by Eknath Easwaran December 1, 2011

Filed under: books,upanishads,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:30 pm
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The Upanishads, translated by Eknath EaswaranThe Upanishads are a group of ancient wisdom texts. Each individual upanishad is named for the sage who delivered its teaching, long ago; each one describes in flashes of insight how to explore your own consciousness, how to come closer to the Divine. Some of the upanishads take the form of a story: a student (or a wife, or even a king) implores a great sage (or even Death itself) to share holy secrets. Most of the upanishads rely on classic natural images – birds, trees, water – that make the metaphors timeless and appealing even thousands of years after they were written.

It’s impossible to write an unbiased book review of a cherished spiritual text  – how could I possibly critique the writing style or the structure of a book like this? So this review will be a little more personal. I loved The Upanishads. They called out to me in a way other spiritual books, including the Bible, just haven’t. I expect to keep The Upanishads by my bed, read them again and again, consult different translations, flip through seeking guidance. It can be a difficult book, and I don’t ever expect to understand it fully, but I loved it.

While the text itself is beyond critique, the translation and the version I can comment on. I really like Eknath Easwaran’s translations (I also read his version of the Bhagavad Gita). Easwaran is well-versed in Sanskrit and in Hindu spirituality, and before becoming a spiritual teacher was an English professor, so he has all the tools to create both a beautiful and accurate rendition. Easwaran also writes the introduction, which I found helpful for putting The Upanishads in their historical context and setting the stage for the sort of text I was about to read (since when I started I really had no idea what I was getting into). This volume also includes a brief 2-3 page introduction before each upanishad, written by Michael Nagler. These I also found informative, and it was helpful to look as I read for the points that Nagler had called out as being important, but I think I would have preferred to read the upanishad first and then read Nagler’s summary of it. Nagler also writes a lengthy afterword, which I did not find very useful. The end matter includes a glossary and a section of notes, which I didn’t realize were there as I was reading the upanishads, and I think I’m glad I didn’t know they were there – I’m the sort of person who will flip back and forth consulting the notes, and I’m glad I was able simply to experience the upanishads on this first read rather than analyzing them academically. There will be plenty of time to look at the notes and read other translations. The glossary might have been helpful a few times, though, and I imagine it would be very useful to someone who hasn’t spent the past ten months up to her ears in yoga philosophy.

Overall, I would say that if you’re new to Hindu spirituality, I wouldn’t recommend starting with The Upanishads – the Bhagavad Gita is a much more accessible book for most people. For me, though, The Upanishads was more inviting, more enthralling than the Gita, and more accessible too. The first time I read the Gita I walked away thinking that it was nice and all but nothing great, and I needed the lectures and discussion of my yoga teacher training course to put the Gita’s systems in context and help me understand what I was reading. With The Upanishads, I felt like I could really hear the sages speaking directly to me: faraway, murky, blurred voices, sure, but I could hear it. I look forward to listening again and again.


Yoga and Christianity, Part 2 November 30, 2011

Filed under: yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:10 pm
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Yesterday I talked about a few articles that denounce yoga as being inappropriate for Christians to practice. I don’t agree with that assessment, and I think that those who believe that way are taking a far too narrow view. Today I want to talk about just a few of the reasons why I think yoga can be used by and helpful to anyone regardless of their religious background.

One thing that has struck me in my own practice and reading was how similar the Bhagavad Gita is to the Gospels. A LOT of what Krishna tells Arjuna could have been said by Jesus to Peter and have made perfect sense. I would actually love to hear from someone who has read both the Gita and the Gospels closely, because to me the parallels seem numerous and meaningful.

To say that “attaining enlightenment through Krishna” is different from “reaching the kingdom of heaven through Jesus” is to quibble over vocabulary and culture, I think, and to argue over what face you want to put on your version of the divine. Christians put one face on the divine, Hindus another, Muslims still another, but at heart, we’re talking about the same guy here. In practical terms, the emotion and feeling that a Christian puts in to worshipping Jesus is going to be very similar to the emotion and feeling that a Hindu or a Bhakti yogi puts in to worshipping Krishna. The rituals may be different, but they’re doing the same thing.

Over the past year, yoga has helped me realize just how similar the major religions are in many ways. On a technical theological level, the core beliefs of Buddhism or Hinduism aren’t going to be compatible with the core beliefs of Christianity, but on a moral and ethical level, they’re nearly identical, and on a spiritual level, we’re all striving for the same thing: to become closer to our version of God. Whether “God” means Yahweh or Jesus or Krishna or the universal consciousness, it doesn’t matter. There are many names for God and many metaphors for God. We’re all blind men touching a different part of the elephant, but it’s all the same elephant: the trunk, ears, feet, and tail are all parts of the same thing, no matter how different they seem individually.

While yoga has a strong and beautiful background in Hindu tradition, that doesn’t necessarily define it as a Hindu practice. The tools set out in the yoga texts are, I feel, applicable to any sort of spiritual searching – and I believe that Christians and all people should take part in spiritual searching to become closer to their God. All of my reading this year has helped me to confirm for myself that I’m not a Christian, but that wasn’t due to the yoga – I pretty much knew that already. Yoga could have the complete opposite effect on a devout Christian, helping her to come into a deeper communion with her faith. For example, people in many different religious faiths practice meditation – a Buddhist practicing meditation doesn’t become a Hindu or vice versa, because the meditation simply brings the practitioner closer to her own concept of the divine. If you look at the definition of meditation, saying the rosary is actually a meditation practice – the chanting and repetition of certain words or prayers to bring one closer to God. There are many ways to meditate, many ways to seek, many ways to pray.

I welcome thoughtful discussion on this topic, as well as links to articles or further information. I may come back to this again, since I really feel like I’m only skimming the surface here.


Yoga and Christianity, Part 1 November 29, 2011

Filed under: yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:15 pm
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My friend Birdmaddgirl recently posted a link to an article by Pastor Mark Driscoll, a long and thoughtful discussion of why yoga is an inappropriate practice for Christian people. Pastor Driscoll cites yoga’s roots in Hinduism to denounce it as demonic, by which he means that yoga is a spiritual act of devotion to beings other than the God of the Bible. You can read Pastor Driscoll’s article here. My friend Birdmaddgirl responds to it here. You may not be surprised to learn that I disagree with Pastor Driscoll and agree with Birdmaddgirl. After reading Driscoll’s article carefully, I think that his research is incomplete and his logic is fundamentally flawed. To my view, it looks as though Driscoll set out with an agenda and did only the research he needed to prove his agenda right. That sort of approach is antithetical to the concepts of open-mindedness and true intellectual inquiry.

Pastor Driscoll has some fundamental misconceptions in his research on yoga; those misconceptions, combined with his strict Christian perspective, would certainly make yoga seem incompatible with Christianity, but some deeper searching would reveal those misconceptions to be false. If you look at his reference citations, he has read one article by Elliot Miller, a fellow Christian, about yoga history, and one book by a yoga historian (and looking at the page numbers cited, perhaps he read just the introduction to that book). Driscoll doesn’t claim to have read Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita, or any other historical yoga or Hindu texts, nor does he claim to have read any material on modern yoga practice. Even his Bikram Choudhury quote is cribbed directly from Miller’s article. Now, I’m not saying that Driscoll should have done exhaustive research just to write a blog post, but I would have preferred him to have read a little more widely on the subject before making such negative conclusions. While I understand some of what informs his viewpoint, it seems to me that he’s trying to make his article seem deeply researched to better support his agenda.

I read over the article by Miller that Driscoll cites, and overall Miller presents the material in an unbiased way and he seems to have read Patanjali carefully. However, Miller (and Driscoll also) includes discussion of tantra, which seems to me to be a purposeful inclusion to raise prurient and negative feeling, since tantra is incredibly far removed from much yoga practiced in the US today, particularly the kinds of tantra that involve “black magic” or “child sacrifice”. To me, this seems akin to including mention of abortion clinic bombers in a general discussion of Christianity, when in reality the vast majority of Christians would want no connection with such violent behavior. There are crazies and zealots in every religion, and Hinduism has some too. However, Miller doesn’t denounce yoga and generally keeps a neutral tone. This article is the first in a three-part series, and this first part only covers history and definitions, with promises to examine carefully modern yoga and its implications for Christians later in the series. Pastor Driscoll draws his conclusions from reading only Part One of Miller’s explorations, without seeing how Miller goes on to look at modern yoga practice or what conclusions he draws. (Miller does eventually conclude that yoga is inappropriate for Christians to practice – see Parts Two and Three. I fail to understand why prana can’t be understood as the Holy Spirit moving in the body, or why saying Namaste, “I honor the divine in you”, is necessarily an affirmation of pantheism rather than an acknowledgment that each of us is one of God’s children. But Miller puts a lot more work and thought into it than Driscoll does, which I respect.)

This topic is important to me. I was raised Catholic and attended 13 years of Catholic school, so I do know something about Catholic Christianity; I also deeply believe that the practice of yoga, and the values that go along with it, can be beneficial to any human being regardless of religious background. And many devout Catholics think so too, as evidenced in this fantastic article about yoga as Christian spiritual practice. I am glad to see that not every Christian believes as Driscoll and Miller do.

This is getting to be a very long post, so tomorrow: some of my own thoughts on how the spirituality behind yoga can be applicable no matter what religion the yogi practices.


Practicing Non-Violence November 11, 2011

Filed under: reflections,yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:52 pm
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I’m finding more and more that yoga philosophy is seeping into my consciousness when I’m not looking. I’ve noticed lately that I’ve become less able to deal with violence in television and movies – the images really disturb me and keep replaying themselves in my brain. For example, lately I’ve been watching the second season of Dollhouse, which is incredibly dark and violent. Usually I love any show that Joss Whedon creates (like Buffy and Firefly), but this one is really bothering me. My husband and I are also watching The Walking Dead together, a show so tense and intense and dark that I can no longer watch it at night; we’ve taken to watching last week’s episode on sunny Saturday mornings. I’ve never liked horror movies and gave up watching those a long time ago, but I never had a problem with violence before – in the past I was a fan of Dexter and thought it was great, so clearly something’s changing. I’m finding myself undecided about whether to keep watching these shows. I really want to know what happens at the end, but I don’t know if I want to keep putting myself through watching them and filling my mind with dark things that don’t need to be there.

I mentioned this issue to a friend, who told me that she’d experienced something similar after she started meditating. Now she can’t watch Law & Order: SVU anymore, among other things. I wonder if many people who begin cultivating a spiritual practice (any kind of spiritual practice) experience a change like this?

For me, I think this change is a combination of a few things. First, yoga teaches non-violence in the form of ahimsa. This isn’t just refraining from violent actions: ahimsa means keeping violence from our words, voice, and thoughts as well, and what’s more, striving to bring peace to our actions, words, and thoughts instead. Ahimsa was a major inspiration behind me becoming a vegetarian – I didn’t want to bring another creature’s suffering into my body or make that suffering a part of me. So why would I want to take suffering into my mind, even if it’s only the suffering of fictional characters?

Yoga, Hindu philsophy, and Buddhist philosophy alike all teach that we are all one – that the one truth is that we’re all part of one Self, one higher Consciousness. Our physical appearances may differ, but at root we’re all the same. When you start to absorb this philosophy, the idea of violence becomes repugnant. Any violence done by one person to another hurts not just the person on the receiving end, but the do-er as well. In fact, it hurts everybody. We’re all joined, all parts of one whole. The Upanishads emphasize this again and again. It’s a concept that can be hard to comprehend intellectually, but after a while you start to feel the truth of it.

Jesus said it too: Love thy neighbor as thyself. That simple saying is easy for schoolchildren to parrot back, but it’s hard to put into practice. When you begin to believe that we’re all brothers and sisters, that the spirit in me is the same as the spirit in you and you and you, then the love starts to come more naturally. Loving your neighbor is the same thing as loving yourself! And correspondingly, the acceptance of violence dwindles.

I think this is about where I’m at in my spiritual practice, and I think this is why it’s hard for me to watch violent shows anymore. I have four episodes of The Walking Dead left to watch, and maybe five or six episodes of Dollhouse. Part of me thinks I should stick it out, finish these shows off and then be done with violent shows. But then when I add it up, that’s a good ten more hours of watching people stab and hurt each other. I’m not sure if I’m up for that.


Upanishads (part 1) November 1, 2011

We’re taking a quick break from our yoga & sex series so I can tell you how much I’m in love with the Upanishads already. It’s a collection of ancient wisdom from Hindu sages who lived over 2000 years ago, and so far I’ve only read the intros and the first Upanishad, the Isha, but I’m head over heels here. Opening the book, the very first page has this inscription:

You are what your deep, driving desire is.
As your desire is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As you deed is, so is your destiny.
(Brihadaranyaka IV.4.5)

Those few lines touched me really deeply. I memorized them and used them in my meditation this morning. Ten minutes zipped past, and afterwards I felt incredibly peaceful. I love how these lines imply that by using your will to carry out your deepest desires, you have the power to choose your destiny, and further, that that destiny is already within you, ready to be created.

I loved the Isha Upanishad, too. It’s so short and so powerful, really intense and lovely. I read it and the accompanying commentary twice on the train this morning. I’m really loving this. I simultaneously want to read the whole book right now and also to stretch out the reading of it for as long as I can. I’m planning to stretch it out since I know I’ll get more out of it that way. I’m already plotting the purchase of multiple translations so I can reread it again and again and compare the wording. Just thinking about it makes me really happy.


Four Primitive Urges October 11, 2011

Filed under: yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:25 pm
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Many yogis, including Swami Rama, talk about the four primitive urges, also known as the four fountains. Every animal experiences these urges, and humans aren’t exempt! These are the basic needs that every creature wants to have fulfilled. Almost any problem you may experience can be related back to one of the four primitive urges at the root level.

  • Food

Who doesn’t need food? The desire for food naturally occurs in the body when we become hungry, but sometimes the urge to eat can begin in the mind, when we use food for more than just physical nourishment. Food can be comforting, calming, soothing; it can help us procrastinate, it can get us excited, or even make us sick. The next time you reach for a candy bar, consider whether you’re truly hungry or whether you’re trying to fill some other emotional need. As a yogi, one’s food intake shouldn’t be more or less than what the body needs for fuel, so both overeating and starving yourself should be, well, off the table. Also, your diet shouldn’t pollute your body or agitate or your nervous system (hello, coffee!). We’re all guilty of indulging now and then, but in general, following the guidelines for a sattvic diet will help to keep the primitive urge for food in check.

  • Sex

Although the need for sex is a physical need, the desire for sex typically begins in the mind and travels to the body. For example, you might be in a perfectly normal mood but then happen to see a sexy scene in a movie, which stimulates the mind and which in turn arouses the body. The body was just fine; it was the mind that got you worked up. As yogis, we try to keep a balanced state of mind in relation to sex, following the yamas and niyamas to use sexuality appropriately and enjoy it in a healthy way.

  • Sleep

Every living creature needs sleep, but we can definitely get too much of a good thing! Laziness is said to be the greatest of the sins that undermine progress, not just in yoga, but in whatever you do in life. Laziness is covered under the yamas and niyamas, as well as in the nine obstacles to mental clarity, the Gunas (as tamas), and is mentioned often in the Bhagavad Gita as an obstacle to performing your duty or dharma, which of course is a major part of yogic philosophy, so laziness is clearly a major issue! The Bhagavad Gita also says that yoga is not for those who sleep too much or sleep too little – in yoga, we seek to find a balance, not depriving ourselves of the sleep we need to do our work and function in the world, but not giving in to laziness and lethargy either.

  • Self-Preservation

The instinct for self-preservation is where our “fight or flight” response comes from. In essence, this urge is rooted in fear: at the base level, fear of death, which is included among the kleshas as an obstacle to achieving enlightenment. On a figurative level, self-preservation includes fear of losing something we have, and fear that we won’t get what we want or need. Among the many things we try to preserve are our physical body, attractiveness, social standing – anything that contributes to our mental concept of ourselves and how we want others to perceive us. Trying to preserve these things is a natural instinct, but in yoga we work to remove our attachment to the things of the physical world, because only the inner true Self stays unchanging.

We need the four primitive urges to survive, but as we seek spiritually, we must recognize how they influence us and keep the urges working in appropriate ways, not limiting us or holding us back, but only pushing us forward to achieve our potential.


The Bhavas September 19, 2011

Filed under: yoga,yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:39 pm
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The Bhavas are four spiritual attitudes to cultivate as a student of yoga, or really as a student of anything! The Bhavas are:

  • Duty (Dharma)
  • Knowledge (Jnana)
  • Detachment (Vairaigya)
  • Self-Reliance (Aiswarya)

Duty, or Dharma, is an important concept in the Yoga Sutras as well as in the Bhagavad Gita. The idea here is to know your duty, understand what you have to do, and then perform that duty with a neutral attitude, without regard to whether you like or dislike the task. Some examples are going to yoga class regularly even when you don’t feel like it, studying and doing your homework for school, making phone calls at the office, or taking out the trash. Regardless of whether you enjoy taking out the trash, pickup is on Tuesday morning, so it’s your duty to take it out on Monday night with no complaining! To cultivate your sense of duty, try doing meditative yoga asanas, like a series of sun salutations or half-salutes.

Knowledge, or Jnana, goes hand in hand with duty. We should strive to know ourselves at every level: body, thoughts, speech, and emotions. Knowing yourself will help you to better know and understand your duty as well. To cultivate self-knowledge, work on concentration exercises (like, for example, counting meditation), and yoga asanas that require concentration, like balance poses. Pranayama breathing exercises (like these) are also helpful here – pranayama helps you learn your breathing patterns and how to calm your emotions using your breath.

Detachment, or Vairaigya, means living in the world without being of the world. We work not to get caught up in the trivial details of the world around, instead keeping a sense of our true Self, which remains unchanging. This also feeds back into duty – we do the right thing because it’s right, and with detachment from the results, without thought of reward. Overall, cultivating detachment in our lives usually means cultivating an attitude of humility and surrender. Yoga asanas that can help with this include forward bends and twists. These postures encourage us to surrender and relax into the pose: if you’re tensing your muscles and pushing hard, it’s more difficult to succeed with forward bends and twists, but if you let go and surrender to the pose without trying to push, you’ll often find that you can bend just a little bit farther, twist just a little bit deeper.

Self-Reliance, or Aiswarya, can also be referred to as willpower or self-confidence. It’s that deep inner sense that you can do what you need to do. Self-reliance comes from knowing yourself well and having a attitude of humility. Maybe we could also call it integrity! Backbends are yoga asanas that will help with this bhava. Backbends can be scary because you’re dropping your head backwards, unable to see anything coming toward you, so doing backbends develops confidence and strength. Backbends also work to open up the chest, heart, and shoulders, which helps posture – if you’re standing with chest open, shoulders back, you’ll project a much more positive, confident attitude than you would by hunching over!

For me, the bhavas are interesting and helpful to keep in mind as I follow the path of karma yoga, which requires following my dharma with a sense of service and without regard for reward. But the bhavas are useful for any yogic path, or for people following a different path entirely: the characteristics described by the bhavas are useful to cultivate no matter what your faith, religion, or spiritual path!


Books: Bhagavad Gita September 9, 2011

Filed under: bhagavad gita,books,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 2:06 pm

The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Eknath EaswaranThe Bhagavad Gita is one of India’s best known scriptures. It tells the story of Arjuna, a warrior on the eve of battle who has lost heart and become uncertain as to his duty. Arjuna turns to his spiritual guide, Krishna, for answers to all the key questions of life, questions about wisdom and service and spirituality. The battle that Arjuna is about to fight is the perfect metaphor for life and the interior battle we all fight to live a life that is meaningful and fulfilling. The Gita, in essence, is a manual for how to live.

For my yoga teacher training, we were asked to read a translation of the Bhagavad Gita by Eknath Easwaran. On the back cover, Easwaran’s version is described as “reliable” and “readable”, and this is definitely true. Easwaran opens the book with an introduction to the Gita, setting the scene, and then each chapter of the Gita opens with a brief introduction that explicates the content of that chapter. This makes the story easy to follow, and really helps in understanding the context of Arjuna’s and Krishna’s conversation. The endmatter of the book includes a section of notes (typically, helpful insights on issues of translation), as well as a glossary of Sanskrit terms and an index. Easwaran’s version really focuses on making the Gita accessible for the reader, so this version is a great place to start if you’re reading the Gita for the first time.

I had read the Bhagavad Gita previously, in Stephen Mitchell’s translation. Mitchell is known as a translator of ancient poetry – he’s done the epic of Gilgamesh and the Tao Te Ching, among others. The great thing about Mitchell’s work is that he finds a way to take this ancient poetry written in another language and capture not just the meaning but the beauty of the language. Easwaran’s translation of the Gita is verse, but Mitchell’s translation is poetry. The last time I read it, I was looking mostly at the poetry; I decided to read it again, and this time, it was really enjoyable to read the book in a different context, looking more at the content, the instructions for how to live. Definitely got more out of it this time.

When we were assigned to read the Bhagavad Gita for class, I chose to read both versions back to back. I didn’t try to do a line-by-line comparison (that would defeat the purpose of reading it at all, really). Instead, I re-read the Mitchell translation, and then read the Easwaran translation, in the hope that reading both versions would deepen my understanding. I think it did, but I also felt a little burnt out by the time I got to the end of the Easwaran version. I definitely want to reread both versions again, but next time I’ll space them out more.



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