The War that No Yoga Teacher Can Run From
When yoga is reduced to a self-obsessed, bourgeois lifestyle distraction, people who are so poor they would never have time to take a yoga class actually die in collapsing Bangladesh sweatshops. So a bare minimum goal in yoga work should be to keep things real.
In preparing for a few upcoming discussions of the Bhagavad Gita, something inescapably real occurred to me. I began by considering the question: “What war is about to begin for me, in this hour?”
It’s not a new question in Gita studies. Commentators have forever personalized the old book in this way. Non-dualists abstracted the battle at Kurukshetra into an attack on the illusory self. Tantrics turned the war upon the fragmented psyche that cannot bring itself to love life and delight in the present moment. Some Indian freedom fighters heard Krishna rallying them to slaughter the British; others heard a pacifist message.
I resonate with all of these approaches a little. But they don’t really bite hard. It always seems like there’s something missing. The question nags: What war is about to begin for all of us, right now?
We can take our pick of wars, given the countless forms of oppression that surround us, live through us, benefitting few and wounding many. Racism, sexism, classism: so many wars.
But the inescapable war, which both exacerbates and transcends every socio-political inequality – a war as inevitable as Arjuna’s war against his nihilistic cousins – is the war that human civilization is waging upon terrestrial life.
Everyone is trembling on this battlefield. For most of us, there is no God to talk to, to instruct, encourage, and comfort us. We must make the most of speaking with each other.
Arjuna had it easy in a sense. At least he could see the approaching absurdity with his own eyes. He didn’t have to interpret the horror of climate scientists muted through the equivocations of economists. He could actually see his enemies on the stormy horizon: uncles and teachers waiting with a million foot soldiers, ready to loose their arrows upon the innocents. We have to make do with articles, hockey-stick graphs, pictures of receding glaciers or 10,000 walrus stranded with no sea ice. There is so much data.
Arjuna fully cognized the story of how this moment had arrived: the battle over inheritances, the echo of ancient and stubborn vows, insults and deceptions, the paralysis of a blind king, the psychopathy of Duryodana. Arjuna could see his inescapable position, as well as his own role in creating it. When he falls weeping to his knees, his conflict is as tangible as the earth beneath his armour.
But can we see the war waged by human civilization on terrestrial life? Can we taste it in every sip of imported coffee from every takeaway cup? Can we hear it in every rumble of every oil furnace in every home, whether mansion or trailer? In general, we cannot. Technologized, industrial, fossil-fuel-based, capitalistic war against terrestrial life does an ingenious thing: it makes the humans that spread it feel safe, good, even loved.
My two year-old son has a red plastic front loader he takes to bed with him like a teddy bear. Like most teddy bears today, it was probably made in a Majority World country by a child six or seven years older than him. He’s fascinated with construction sites, which are deceptively named, if you think about it. We didn’t encourage this fetish, other than to delight in his delight.
As I watch him play with his toy construction vehicle, it’s clear that the enemy of terrestrial life is inextricable from our pleasure at extracting primary colours, moving things, changing things, clearing things away. So often, our exuberance expresses itself through creative actions we cannot conceive of as destructive.
I’m sure of it: Arjuna definitely had it easier than us, because he was convinced that war was inevitable. His problem was in understanding how he should participate. Our problem is in seeing how deeply we are participating already.
Plus, nobody was gaslighting Arjuna. Nobody was telling him it was all going to turn out alright. His enemies were not tempting him to distraction with a new car or smartphone, or with vague neoliberal hopes that free markets or technology will save us, that eating sustainably harvested salmon will halt the collapse of ocean life, or with the insinuation that being a good citizen with your recycling can rationalize the expansion of the tar sands.
In the battle the Gita sanctifies, Arjuna’s half-brother and tortured enemy Karna deploys an invincible weapon, a bow called Vijaya. Strung by the war-god Indra, Vijaya cannot be destroyed. It never misses its mark, delivering unbreakable arrows that slice the air with lightning.
Today, civilization has an even more powerful weapon of mass destruction than Karna’s. This weapon is the propaganda that says there is no war at all. Every red plastic front loader and yoga-ass advertisement sends an arrow, Cupid-like, into the heart. It seduces our discrimination, our ability to see beyond our daily balances, with a simple lie: personal salvation will come through more gratification at cheaper prices. Everything is okay.
We have projected, embodied, fallen in love with, married, and merged with human civilization, the enemy of terrestrial life. In some hidden part of us, we know that something is not okay. With every banal purchase, we delay the bracing thought of divorce.
Yogadork kindly asked me to craft a prediction or wish for yoga culture in 2015 as part of its State of the Union series. Here it is. I direct it not at the general practitioner but at the professional class: those who teach or administer studios for a substantial part of their income. These are the people who are responsible for holding and guiding the mood of practice moving forward.
I predict/wish that from this day forward, teachers will recognize that they are on this battlefield in every moment of every day. I predict/wish that they will be acutely aware of the constant tension between action and inaction. They will realize that calming themselves or resolving their personal traumas to a manageable degree through yoga was a kind of basic training for the larger battle of interdependent renewal.
I predict/wish that teachers will recognize that the enemy of terrestrial life is global, structural, pervasive and tenacious, and that neither asanas nor meditation can attack it directly. Only boots-on-the-ground activism can. Then they can recognize the true target of teaching: that human civilization is the macrocosm of basic human drives like rāga and dveṣa.
I predict/wish that teachers will accept that it is a sign of obsessive narcissism to long for these drives to be erased in a blaze of private enlightenment, and to spend countless hours practicing towards this end. However, they will know that addressing things like attachment and aversion pragmatically in the brief and privileged laboratory of practice can allow the higher yoga of activism to proceed with greater sustainability.
I predict/wish that every single teacher can start to make this work in simple ways first. Like tithing their monthly income to a warrior cause they publicize through their newsletters. Or by modeling activism for their communities by serving populations without access to yoga. Or by tying access to “advanced-level” practices with strategic (rather than symbolic) environmental work. Or by letting students know that asana and meditation can grant the insight to see that they are in a war that can finally be heroic. By letting them know that practice can give the strength to fight with grace, even though — or especially because — the outcome is unclear.
First published at Yogadork. Thank you, JC.