wellness . mind body spirit


The Spiritual Warrior’s Journey: why we read The Gita in yoga

We read this text not simply because it is an epic tome of Indian classical literature but mainly for its contents: a set of experiential teachings. The reader is plunged into a conversation right before a war. This tome does not provide answers, but rather gives processes to show how to find the answers, which make life circumstances meaningful. It is about navigating difficult paths in life. Rare is the human being who does not need guidance in their life. The Gita is a text that we return to over and over again, gleaning something different from it each time, depending on where we are in your journey of life. For me, I first read it in college in an Eastern philosophy course taught by an Indian professor - I vaguely remember my exposure to it but that was nearly twenty years ago. I often think about how it took me nearly twenty years to make my way back to it, in circular fashion. I was drawn to it from this early age at the beginning of young adulthood, so clearly there was a pull, similarly to how Eddie Stern pointed out in the foreword to Pattabi Jois’ Yoga Mala - even the Gita mentions that one “is pulled to it [yoga] against one’s will, as toward a magnet” which he writes that Guruji was very fond of quoting. This certainly caught my attention and resonated with me as exactly my experience.

When we are out of balance, we take on roles that are not ours. It takes some of us our entire lifetime to realize this. Reality is always filtered through your lens of body, mind and emotions. There should be ease and stability for balance; your reaction will show you where you are. The story illustrates that the ‘war’ is going to happen regardless and any situation is just made of facts. If you watch how your system responds, you see your state instead of thinking it is real. When you are able to watch your reaction and separate it from the situation and form a response - this is called awareness. The Gita teaches that action is unavoidable; thus the question is: which action will you choose. The Indian tradition says that we chose these roles to inhabit before we come, as part of our samsara.

Ancient Indian culture has always had the concept of one-on-one guidance from a teacher - a notion that is lost in yoga in the West. Although a good therapist teaches you guidance so you figure out your own path and how to make your choices and take action, the teacher system was mainly the transmission of this knowledge and path in India. The first line of teaching in the Gita is intellectual, which is important but ineffective, because we are introduced to inner knowing, which must be experienced and embodied. This is exactly the journey I have experienced in my nearly ten years of psychotherapy and studies in psychology and yoga - relearning how to trust myself after a childhood and lifetime spent in a world that often forces us to go against our instincts. I am still learning this trust, to listen and constantly working on it. 

The first part of the Gita is about death and life. Useful questions to ask oneself when in difficult situations are - what is the situation, what is the rock, what is the hard place? You can learn to trust yourself and your inner knowing, called intuition. This is practical advise for life that is based on a spiritual foundation as a way to see how spiritual expression plays out in one’s life. The internal conflict represented here is always one between emotions and duty. The dilemma is also usually a conflict of roles and values. For example, one can ask oneself, am I doing what I love or am I only striving to earn money? What is preventing me from doing what I must? What obstacles are coming up? Each personal journey is usually exactly that - sometimes it is going against one’s family or others that comprise some of the greatest continuous struggles of an entire life, going against everything that was imposed by familial and societal structures; other times it is overcoming inner obstacles that form and shape individuals in their beliefs, identities and roles imposed; it can also be struggling to find a sense of safety while always having always felt like an outsider, finding peace and goodness mostly in nature.

In difficult situations, it is always helpful to ask yourself, ‘what do I really know’ instead of projecting into the future. It simplifies the situation, or at least your clarity on the situation. The Gita goes on to describe the warrior model and the warrior’s duty to fight, because that is warrior’s role. Everyone has a role. The answer to asking yourself the question comes in the form of feeling (intuition) rather than intellect or calculation. This leads your navigation. This is why yoga is sustained attention, a science of experience, repattern-ing evenness in the mind, perception skill in action and pre-emptive substance substitution. The first step in difficult situations is to recover equilibrium and balance. Resiliency then increases and we are not thrown by a loop and are less affected by circumstances. Mental stability in Sanskrit is referred to as vairagya - the capacity to let go and relinquish, which occurs by getting connected more to something else for self-regulation. Abhyasa is the effort you have made to stay focused. Sadhana is acquiring or obtaining something - a state of being - through practice . It is re-patterning. You do all of this with intention and intentional practice. An out of balance system has short and shallow breathing, feels unwell and the mind starts to follow the negative path. The Gita describes suffering literally as confined space when emotions are out of balance - duhkha. Daurmanasya is negative thinking and angamejayatua is the body trembling. Svasa - prasvasa refers to short and shallow breath. Viksepah is the mind all over the place. 

The pancamaya model says that we have five dimensions. Maya is something all pervading. In the Gita, the warrior Arjuna’s collapse follows this model: annamaya (body), prana (breath), mano (mind), vijnana (personality/behavior) and ananda (emotions). Again, when presented with this, it is wise to delineate between what I know about the situation and what are the different roles on each side. If and when we do not have clear foundations, we cannot diagnose a problem to get to the treatment. We have to make sure we are operating from a balanced perspective. Thus the Gita has its process: when you have equanimity, your mind is stable and balanced, so you have less allegiance to a particular outcome. You are not deriving your self worth from the outcome because you are already balanced. This way of being allows you to be more skillful. You will not be enslaved to the result because the connection is more internal. With balance you will be less impacted by outcomes. Bhyasa is an effort to be focused, attentive. This is yoga - skill in action. When you become connected towards a particular direction, the other attachments wither away. 

This is why yoga is a constant practice - we always practice in order to return to balance, not to reach bliss. When we are out of balance, our perceptions tend towards the negative (referred to in western models as our negativity bias of the mind). Peace is the emotional aspect of balance. These concepts are all so familiar to me. Since we end up in places that feel familiar, I began to see several years ago how my entire life had consisted of me enduring extremely difficult people and severely stressful environments because I didn’t know anything different, like all the former soldiers with complex PTSD around me in my professional work environs and in the family of soldiers in which I grew up.  We know from epigenetics that trauma is encoded in the DNA of three generations after it is experienced, down to the cellular and every level. Many of us begin to reconnect the split between body and mind, as I had lived a lifetime in my head in order to survive. I, personally, became quite the intellectual, relying on my mind since it had to block the memories of trauma that my body chronically experienced. My soul was never satisfied and was screaming out through my body for years in its pains; thus began the arduous work and the painful journey to re-enter the body - part of my spiritual journey of the warrior and the yoga path. The irony is that since I grew up around warriors, I thought I was one, as I was treated like one and I identified as one, even though I am a female in a patriarchal system; what I later found out was that I was actually a most sensitive spiritual warrior, having survived what feels like so many lifetimes in one, pushing through the fog and pain, having known only all too well what it feels like to be dying inside, all of this both my gift and curse to be able to feel and empathize with others.

The more internally connected and balanced we are, we can influence our bodily system more and we are less influenced and affected by external inputs. This is where addiction comes in also - because what is addiction other than an imbalance in the system. Many of us have experienced all of this in many forms as well as relearning to follow intuition, gut instinct, inner knowing - this is all yajnya. Viveka is another important concept - the ability to discern, differentiate which is also hard after a lifetime of being confused. A balanced mind is calm and alert. If you are not calm and at peace, you cannot follow your correct action, which is guided by your knowing - yajna. Truth is quiet, whereas non-truth is noisy. In balance, you will have more skill at communicating with people. These are all the areas where I must constantly work. Sometimes it comes naturally; other moments are challenging. Most of what people eat is unconscious self-regulation to either address the state they are in at the moment or to match the qualities of that moment. All we can do is influence our bodily system, not control it. It is symptomatic of the state you are in, which is why we must manage our state of being. All of this is quite simple but very subtle. When I was introduced to Bessel Van der Volk’s work on trauma years ago, I learned how the body does indeed keep the score.

Whatever our wound is, it shows up in opposition to our inner knowing. Two things are necessary: trust in the path/process and having a teacher who can help guide you with your emotional and behavioral structure. Your inner knowing is part of your purpose and part of the larger wheel turning. I struggled for years with the search to find meaning and my purpose. I felt lost. Now I can look back better and see how my unraveling was all necessary and a transformation. The spiritual warrior is often like the phoenix rising from the ashes, reinventing itself and going through countless cycles of destruction and transformation. I no longer have to overachieve in the outer world like I did for twenty years, as I lost attachment to that for the most part. We will always struggle for balance between attachment and non-attachment but that is the path of the spiritual warrior. I am less attached to what I will ‘do’ in life as I am a vessel through which divine, inner knowing flows and when I aim for balance, things come naturally when I focus on my state of being. Thus, the work of the spiritual warrior has always been to seek liberation.