A very short and different Gita

For you fans of what’s happening in the skies, a quick check-in on Tim Miller’s blog this week:

[Y]ou may have noticed that Mars and Jupiter are now very close together—for the next week they will be within one degree of each other, with an exact conjunction Saturday October 17that 3:40pmPDT. This is a high-powered transit combining the physical energy and confidence of Mars with the optimism and expansiveness of Jupiter to generate fortunate action. During this transit we tend to feel strong and fit, and more willing to take chances than usual. The conjunction of Mars and Jupiter takes place in Purvaphalguni (the first fruit of the gunas) nakshatra in the sign of Leo.

What’s that mean? Well, it could be something like this:

Under the current influence of Mars/Jupiter conjunct in Purvaphalguni this conversation might have gone differently, perhaps something like this: … “Not to worry, Krishna,” says Arjuna, “I am the greatest warrior the world has ever known—the Kauravas are toast.”

As Tim notes, that would make for an uninspiring Gita. So it’s a good week to pause for just a second before leaping.

Posted by Steve

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The Bhagavad Gita, as you may not know it

It’s a congenital bent in our household to look thoroughly or deeply at… well, at whatever. Poetry, politics, history, culture, religion. It’s an ongoing push-pull, which I would say isn’t always comfortable but is always necessary.

Trying to look at surrender in the same way is a thorough challenge, especially if as you’re about to do so you see the little thread hanging that can unravel everything.

Historian Wendy Doniger has made an academic career (something worth a thorough rending, by the way) of challenging long-held assumptions and diving more deeply into India’s religious and cultural histories. Her book, The Hindus, as a result is a massive and massively controversial one. You may recall hearing how it got banned in India. I know plenty of people who are decidedly not Doniger fans.

So I present this one a little warily, but I find it too interesting not to pass on. It’s a review of a new book looking at the history of the Bhagavad Gita — here we have more of the review, which is by Doniger, than the book, by religious scholar Richard Davis. Some excerpts:

How did Indian tradition transform the Bhagavad Gita (the “Song of God”) into a bible for pacifism, when it began life, sometime between the third century BC and the third century CE, as an epic argument persuading a warrior to engage in a battle, indeed, a particularly brutal, lawless, internecine war? It has taken a true gift for magic—or, if you prefer, religion, particularly the sort of religion in the thrall of politics that has inspired Hindu nationalism from the time of the British Raj to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi today.

[snip]

The American Transcendentalists, too, tended to ignore the martial Gita, but they loved the philosophical Gita. In the 1850s, “Thoreau took a borrowed copy of the Wilkins Gita with him to Walden Pond, where he imagined himself communing with a Brahmin priest” on the banks of the Ganges as he sat reading on the banks of the pond. When the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was published in 1855, Ralph Waldo Emerson commented that it read like “a mixture of the Bhagavat Ghita [sic] and the New York Herald,” and a translation of the Gita was said to have been found under Whitman’s pillow when he died.

[snip]

Confronted with Krishna’s exhortation to Arjuna to engage in a violent battle, Gandhi argued that by urging him to “fight,” Krishna meant simply that Arjuna should do his duty. “Fighting” was merely a metaphor for the inner struggle of human beings, and nonviolence was a corollary of nonattachment to the fruits of action; therefore, actions such as murder and lying are forbidden, because they cannot be performed without attachment. On the other hand, the lawyer and Dalit spokesperson Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, contesting Gandhi’s claim to speak for Dalits (the lowest castes, or Harijans, as Gandhi called them, “the people of God,” generally called Untouchables at that time), argued that the Gita was a defense of the caste system and that it supported genocide over nonviolence.

Gandhi ignored the warrior Gita at his peril: the man who killed him was driven by it. On the evening of January 30, 1948, Nathuram Godse, as Davis writes, “interrupted Gandhi at the prayer grounds [at Birla House, Delhi] with two bullets fired at point-blank range.” Two days before his execution, Godse wrote a final letter to his parents in which he argued that “Lord Krishna, in war and otherwise, killed many a self-opinionated and influential persons for the betterment of the world, and even in the Gita He has time and again counseled Arjun to kill his near and dear ones and ultimately persuaded him to do so.” Evidently Godse concluded that Krishna would have wanted him to assassinate the “influential” Gandhi for the betterment of the world. Like the revolutionary Khudiram Bose, Godse carried a copy of the Gita on the morning of his execution.

That should give you a fairly clear picture of what the book — and Doniger — present by way of a “biography” of the Gita. Maybe read it at your own risk.

Posted by Steve

How to get more out of the 1% of your Ashtanga practice

On our recent yatra — and Bobbie has a fun post in the works about it — one of the highlights was the santsang with both Robert Moses and the Swamijis who accompanied us for roughly half the trip.

I know it flies — sort of — in the face of the 99%/1% scenario, but talking through ideas and issues remains an important part of the wider definition of “practice” for us.

In other words: More of this, more of this, more of this. Bring it on. It’s why the discussions at the Confluence last year were our favorite part of the weekend.

So in the spirit of promoting the 1%, here are two examples. You may have seen them if they are at your home shala; but if not, perhaps they can act as inspiration to coax your teacher into doing a talk sooner than later.

First up, Eddie Stern has a ton of these things going on. The one I’m focused on is his Bhagavad Gita weekends with Kaustubha Das. Here’s more from AYNY:

March 16&17 Karma Yoga (ch 1-6); June 15&16 Bhakti Yoga (ch 7-12); September 28&29 Jnana Yoga (ch 13-18)

$120 per weekend, $300 for all three. Please register by emailing Kaustubha Das:

bhakticollective@gmail.com

This three-weekend course aims at gaining an understanding of some of the fundamental concepts of yoga through the Bhagavad Gita. Kaustubha Das and I will examine the relation between the mind, intelligence, ego and self through reading some of the important verses from the Gita. The weekends will include study, chanting, japa and kirtan.

Eddie also has planned a Wednesday night series of talks, once a month, going on through June. And, last but not least, on April 9th, AYNY is hosting Sharath for a conference. All the details are at AYNY.

On our side of the U.S., Diana Christinson has an advanced sadhana discussion planned for mid-March. Here’s just the middle day:

Saturday, March 16

11am – 4:30pm

Dancing With The Practice

Are you serving the asana or is the asana serving you?

Teaching & discussion on the beauty of the long-term practice / Abhyasa

Adjustment teachings & demonstrations

Discussion & demonstrations on body and personality archetypes

Working with injuries and limitations

Teaching & discussion on the Bhagavad Gita

 

These are just two examples that came across my radar; I’m sure there are more out there happening, maybe one near you. We’ve found they are great inspiration, great for reinvigorating practice (if you need that) and great for opening up new paths or avenues of investigation.

Posted by Steve

 

Guest post: Freeman on asana and the Gita from England

One of the best parts about running this blog has been the chance to have conversations (usually “off-line”) with readers and get to know a broader swath of the Ashtanga community. We’ve spoken with people in New Zealand, the Czech Republic, India (of course, right?) and Japan, among others. We all share Ashtanga, but that’s typically just been the start of discussions.

A few days ago, one of our readers, Diane Mulholland, contacted us to see if we’d be interested in her sending along a few thoughts from a Richard Freeman workshop she’s be attending.

Image via Diane Mulholland

Easy answer. And so here are her thoughts. Thanks to Diane for taking the time! (We’re so appreciative, we’re even leaving in her British spellings!) And special thanks for including some of Richard’s famous metaphors.

***

Five months ago, I’d never heard of Richard Freeman, and never taken an Ashtanga yoga class. I was searching for more meaning in my yoga and I was looking around for a course or a retreat, anything that would go a bit more in-depth than the purely asana-focused classes I’d been taking. A friend recommended I check out Yoga Campus and the Richard Freeman course was the right length, the right time of year (birthday money!) and was half-and-half asana and philosophy. Sounded perfect, so I asked around, “Anyone know what Richard Freeman’s like?” and the resounding answer was (with a little poetic licence): “OMG he’s amazing! If you get the opportunity to work with him grab it!”

Thus began my relationship with Ashtanga (I had four months to learn primary series to a point where I wouldn’t embarrass myself). Yesterday was the last of my five days with Richard; here are some of the highlights.

Each morning we did three hours of asana. Sessions were based on Primary, but with a lot of meanderings or pauses to look at a form in depth. Here’s a couple of things that really stood out for me:

“Blessed be the stiff, for they shall breathe into it.” I’m a Pilates teacher, so I’m pretty accustomed to being the most bendy person in the room. This week, I was in the bottom 10%. It would be very easy to feel like an interloper, but Richard’s attitude turned this around and made me feel like the special one. Comments like “It’s the process that’s interesting, when you get there it’s just the same” or my favourite, “When you get to the floor it’s kind of sad as you can’t go anywhere any more” made it all OK. It’s a very subtle thing, and a teacher’s attitude can really make or break the experience for a beginner.

“Slow down – what are you trying to avoid?” We spent a lot of time not just holding poses for longer, but exploring the forms that lead to a pose. This relates to Steve’s post from last week on avoiding certain postures. We spent a lot of time, for example, waiting in Upward Dog, which I discovered I really dislike, no wonder I swim through it in a split second. We also explored how a pre-form like standing with the arm lifted before folding into Utthita Trikonasana B sets you up for a better, more connected experience of the posture.

A couple more snippets

Make sure your drishti is visible to both eyes – otherwise you’re giving it the evil eye (check your Trikonasana!)

The exhale frames the pose, the inhale makes it interesting.

Hold the pose from the root, not the petals, like you would a flower (bhandas).

If you find you’re becoming anxious in Pranayama practice then you know something is happening. You need to “‘play the edge” but not push yourself over it.

Richard talks about the Gita

Each afternoon we drew our mats closer for sitting meditation followed by chanting, and study of the Gita. It’s much harder to convey what the afternoons were like, it was such a wealth of information and discussion, but I’ll share a couple of points that really struck me.

One day, out of the blue, someone asked, “What is Yoga.” And I really liked Richard’s answers. He explained – as like me you’ve no doubt heard before – that the word yoga means to “yoke” or “bind.” But as he went on I realised I never really understood what was being bound. It is the linking of the two complementary opposites. Things like inhale/exhale, I exist/I don’t exist, darkness/light, things that you can have no concept of if the other doesn’t exist – yoga provides the balance between the two. We talked a lot about prana/apana balance in our morning sessions and I feel like this is finally starting to sink in. And then the follow-up question: What is yoga, for those who really have no idea of yoga? Yoga is kindness.

The message that was reinforced for me by our study of the Gita was the warning that as soon as you start to think you know something, beware. Krsna spends whole chapters explaining things to Arjuna, and each time Arjuna says “Wow, I’ve got it!” and Krsna turns around and says, “In case you don’t have it, let me start again.” He does this all the way to the end. For me this ties into the idea of work for the sake of the work, rather than for the fruits of the work. Just keep at it, keep trying to understand, and every time you “get it” you peel another layer of consciousness and start all over again. It’s the process that’s interesting. And as Richard said, “It’s always a bad sign when you think you’re enlightened.”

Snippets

Sometimes the answer is not an answer but a challenge. Never just blindly accept what your teacher says.

When you have placed everyone and everything inside your heart, line up all the centres of all those hearts like a combination lock and opening is easy.

I love how towards the end of the Gita (12:9-12) Krsna explains exactly how you go about it. And what to do if you’re rubbish at it.

Five days is a huge amount of information and this has barely scraped the surface. I’ve filled enough space though, and really everyone’s experience of this week would be different anyway – we all see things from a slightly different point of view. So I will conclude by adding my voice to those enablers from above, if you get the opportunity to work with Richard grab it!

***

Richard Freeman on the Gita. That’s something you don’t get every day. We’re jealous. Thanks again, Diane!

Posted by Steve