I posted a request from YogaforVets.com on my Facebook page the other day. Seems simple, right?
It's a site, founded in 2007 by Navy diver and yoga instructor Paul Zipes. He says he had the idea for the site because he wanted to support the troops and their recovery from war-related stress and injury. He says, "as a yoga teacher and a vet myself, listing free yoga classes for war vets was an easy decision."
Zipes is asking yoga teachers everywhere to offer 4 free yoga classes to veterans of any war, so these men and women can learn a skill to help them cope with the stresses and traumas of active duty. He wanted me to help spread the word.
"Good idea", I thought--a no-brainer, actually.
But some of the negative responses from yoga students and teachers I received made me think again.
"How do you reconcile this post with the fact that yogis are against 'himsa'--or "violence", as set forth by yogic scriptures, and your support of war is shockingly non-yogic", one yoga practitioner wrote.
And there was more where that came from.
"Combat is inherently anti-Yoga"...
"Patanjali would never condone this..."
"War is wrong. How can you ask us to give yoga to those in alignment with it?"
Well, here's how. A fuller understanding of karma, or the outcome of actions, Dharma, or the human path of freedom and peace, and Ahimsa, or practicing "nonviolence" makes it impossible to judge warriors, or war, for that matter, as inherently good or bad. I'll show you why in a moment.
When it comes to their own, bliss-filled circles, many yogis feel right at home. They can walk into and out of their own yoga sanctuary with ease, armed with tunnel vision and a limited concept of yogic philosophy and be accepted by their peers, surrounded by their like-minded yoga family.
Bring a foreign element to the door however, especially one they don't agree with, and you'll see that often, this yoga home is closed to certain people, though open wide to those who share their views. This sanctuary is then revealed as the dogma-house it really is.
And frankly, I'm over it.
In my view, anyone who wants to try yoga, and seek a path of self-knowledge and harmony for any reason, should be welcomed onto the mat. As teachers, we have a responsibility to teach, not to judge, period. If I had to agree with everyone's views who came to my classes, my studio would be near-empty.
Besides, let's talk about yoga as the personal path of transformation it is, not in terms of "scripture", as if it's a religion that's set in stone. There are as many philosophies about how to reach self-awareness as there are people to teach the path, many of them directly contradicting the other.
One of yoga's most foundational texts, the Bhagavad Gita, tells the story of Krishna, a god, who is trying to get this guy, Arjuna, to march onto the battlefield and kill his family, friends and teachers, because, basically, they're anarchists who are keeping a kingdom under immoral and abusive rule.
Krishna himself won't participate in the violence, but he sends Arjuna his army. He explains that Arjuna's battle is just, because it protects humanity's Dharma, or universal harmony and freedom from oppression.
The war is called the "Dharma Yuddha", meaning a conflict fought on behalf of justice.
One yoga practitioner, Lt.Col Randy Fridley, USMC (Ret.), who was deployed to Vietnam, has found solace in yoga, and healing for his body and mind.
To those who might decline to teach a veteran yoga, he offers this advice: "Say what you want about more recent ventures into war by our country. History will judge them too. But that's not the point. Peace is best promoted by one at peace soul at a time.
He continues, "If a just war presents itself as a necessity, I suspect many in yoga would go, and continue to do yoga and keep their inner peace accordingly. Yoga promotes a peaceful soul. Who could find fault with that?"
Our culture, and most of them before ours, have consisted of different sections of society. There are healers, teachers, workers, artists and clergy. There is also the warrior class. And there's a good reason for this, in my opinion.
Yoga philosophy states that we should practice Ahimsa, or non-violence towards our fellow man and ourselves, as one way to release our resistance to our universal nature. If you're angry all the time, it's hard to realize your inherent goodness, and connection to all things. Check.
However, we are also taught that at certain times, employing force may be necessary in order to protect the larger right of a community to live according to their Dharma. We could call this "conscious himsa".
When Patanjali's meaning of ahimsa is applied appropriately, if done for the greater good, and from a place of fighting for people's freedom, and not against it, of denying bullies their choice to terrorize innocent civilians, and all this is truly done on behalf of justice, then it is not the enlightenment-busting form of violence he describes.
Any yogic concept, be it war, ahimsa, Dharma, or Upward Dog, has a positive and negative polarity. You can take action in your yoga poses in a way that harms or harmonizes you. It's the same way with anything. One person would call Elvis "a sinner" while another would call him "a star".
Unfortunately, we've often pigeonholed ourselves in the yoga community into "this is bad, this is good", this is "spiritual", this is "not enlightened" without thinking about the action's purpose and origination point.
Is the action decisive, or unifying? Done from fear, or love? If an action is taken from love and unity, the outcome will resonate that.
When it comes to embracing warriors on our mats, we also tend to conveniently forget our foundational teachings that actions taken for peace will be of constructive karma and actions taken from fear will be of destructive karma, or outcome. Yogically, it's whether you're acting on behalf of unity or separatism, love or hate, universal equality or ego that makes karma "good" or "bad". "War", "Veteran", "Fighting" can be either. It all depends where you're coming from in your heart of hearts, and if the war can said to be truly just.
I'm not making any statements about any of our current wars, or any war for that matter. This article is only to say that much of our warrior class joined the forces in order to protect and serve, two highly "spiritual" values. And, even if our choice would not be theirs, we can lessen this yogic revulsion to a man in uniform and learn to open our hearts with the same compassion we extend to those we do agree with.
Dharma, on the level of human beings, means our "true nature". The Dharma of sugar is sweet, for example. And our collective Dharma is to be free and equal, to live and love and worship as we wish and strive for good and to do our life's work without repression or fear.
If as yogis, we take an all-or-nothing view of Ahimsa as always wrong, and then judge the warriors in our society for their actions, no matter what kind of war they're fighting, or for what reason, then we miss the bigger picture of spiritual understanding of the outcome of warring actions taken on behalf of ultimate peace.
Now, granted, most wars nowadays seem to be more about greed and political power than protecting the inalienable rights of a people to exist without living in terror. However, they are not all about power. There is some justice in our violence yet.
And yogis, if you say that Ahimsa is always wrong, and it leads you to deny a Marine from taking your class, or turn your Yogier-than-thou sights on someone who is showing anger, then let me ask you a hard question, one that is quite disturbing, so brace yourself:
If you walked into your home, and some stranger had broken in and was trying to kill your child, would you stand back and chant Om Mani Padme Hum at them with a soft, compassionate smile on your face...or would you do what you had to do to stop it, using force if necessary?
Personally? I would do anything it took to protect that child's life and innocence. And I bet, even if you're an animal rights activist, you eat vegan, and you are anti-war...you might, too.
Think seriously about it. And if your true answer is closer to the second action than the first, then maybe it will bring a little gray into your black and white Ahimsa outlook.
Because it's maddening to me that we as yogis continue to spout this "no Ahimsa, no matter what" dogma, when in fact, sometimes it can be necessary to save the innocent people of entire cultures.
I know Gandhi is going to pop up in the comments, so let me address that here.
He was able to lead a relatively nonviolent protest against the English, who ultimately were civilized and democratic enough to react to the revolt with treaties and withdrawal. Plus, the whole time and cultural equation was right for that type of protest to be effective.
Do you think those responsible for the genocide in Darfur, or suicide bombers who believe in total Jihad against nonbelievers are going to "see the light" of a nonviolent protest by the people? Doubtful. They want you dead, and most likely, no amount of economic sanctions or making your own clothing or salt is going to change this type of aggression into peace. Because equality and harmony is not what they seek, but power, and destruction.
Perhaps you can also see some gray area around the warriors that go to fight in conflict, as a combination of really hard choices and factors--some of which are also striving for others' good, for freedom and protection from harm.
Would I like to see diplomacy take the place of war? Of course (Go, Obama!), but it takes two to come to the table, and we hit a wall when one of those two sides still prefers suicide bombs to negotiating for peace. Because it's not peace they want--it's for the enemy to be wiped off the planet, forever.
So yes, the reasons both parties are in conflict are opposing. So who is to say what's "best" for one side isn't good for everyone? Well, most rational people can say that erring on the side of allowing a people to live in peace is more constructive than allowing one group to terrorize others, and in order to live their idea of freedom, they must destroy other societies and all the people in them.
I'm not saying any of this to make you believe that war is good, or "right". I think it's always a method of last resort (or should be...right, W?).
I am, however, inviting you to broaden your perspective about the facets of conflict, so maybe you'll have more compassion for those who go to fight in them, at least when the fight is for the freedom of both sides to live in Dharmic harmony. I'm not saying all wars do that, but in my opinion, some of them have the protection of people in mind, and not annihilation.
One thing's still for certain, says Fridley, "The world is out of balance. "
"The fighting man and woman sees that firsthand in a dramatic way that the protected could not begin to appreciate. Their experience often has thrown them out of balance and they struggle to get it back."
He explains that for him, the practice of yoga is one answer to tipping the scales back again.
"Yoga is much about living a balanced life and really has contributed that effect to me. It is really helping me with my delayed onset Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ."
LCDR Eric Fretz, USN (Ret.) who is in support of veterans--or anyone--doing yoga, agrees, adding,
"I would say that if warriors have to be deployed, regardless of how you feel about it, a peaceful centered warrior is the best warrior to have on your side.
Zipes has seen firsthand the healing effects of yoga for so many current and former troops. It reduces their PTSD symptoms, stress and injuries. It helps them deal during, and after deployment, with mental and physical issues I can't possibly imagine.
And, he adds, "Regardless of your view about war (most common answer: "War is bad"), if you are a real yogi you should care about people, even if they fought in wars. As a teacher, you have something positive to offer these people."
Whatever you believe about war, yogis, how can any of us call ourselves teachers of a universal spirituality...and then try to prevent any single human being from seeking their ultimate peace? That's not just uninformed, it's arrogant and separatist--which is the root cause of so many wars and conflicts everywhere.
You want to "be the change?" Start with acting in accordance with the unity and welcoming all seekers of the light that yoga truly represents.