Walk of Life: Contrasting War and Yoga Practice.
“War is hell.” ~ William Tecumseh Sherman
Wars are armed conflicts. We have been marching off to them for the past 14,000 years. Since the rise of the nation-state as we know it, tens of thousands of wars have been fought, costing more than 3.5 billion human lives. Other deaths, like those of horses, mules, and camels are incalculable.
The Confederate cavalryman J.O. Shelby had 24 horses shot out from under him in two-and-a-half years during the Civil War. He survived every warhorse he ever rode. General Shelby died of old age in 1897.
Nearly all people, all societies, all states have gone to war with one another. 95% of all known societies have either fought wars or fought wars constantly. In the past 14,000 years, there have been only approximately 300 years of non-raising Cain.
“The condition of man is a condition of everyone against everyone,” said Thomas Hobbes some 400 years ago. When it comes time to taking care of business, it’s about banging heads with iron and blood, no matter what century it is. “Force and fraud are, in war, cardinal virtues.” In other words, no one gives a hoot for the other man, woman, or child. It’s every man for himself, and God against all.
It’s every horse, mule, camel for himself too.
All faiths, beliefs, persuasions have crossed swords, from Jews to Buddhists to Christians. The European Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries cost more than 15 million souls. Islam has been at it since just about Day One. In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers and hard-line Buddhists have been fighting tooth and nail for several years.
They were and are fighting for their beliefs, their beliefs being a ball and chain. Non-violence can be a disaster when it doesn’t work. The only bigger disaster is violence when it works.
More than 230 million people died in the wars of the 20th century. “It was a beastly century,” said Margaret Drabble. It’s impossible to say how many were injured, displaced, disappeared. At the end of the day, at the end of the century, who’s to say who was right and who was wrong? Whoever is left is who says.
The verdict is still out on the 21st century.
In the 5,000-year history of Yoga, however, there are no recorded battlefield deaths of any man or woman true-blue to the eight limbs of the practice. There are no war stories of getting off the mat and duking it out with someone across the street who doesn’t see it your way. Even though there is a standing pose called Warrior, there are no thrust and parry, no AK-47’s, no nuclear arsenal.
There are no bronze memorials of stern men on horseback, sword in hand, in any Yoga studio anywhere.
Wars are fought for many reasons, but those reasons can be boiled down to nationalism, revenge, and material gain, both economic and territorial. The wages of war are swinish, dark, bottomless. Yoga is practiced for one reason: uniting body, spirit, mind. The wages of Yoga are breath, light, energy.
Going to war may be the easiest thing to explain and the hardest thing to do. “Battle is an orgy of disorder. There is only attack and attack and attack some more,” said George ‘Old Blood and Guts’ Patton, who commanded the U. S. Third Army during WW2. Yoga may be the hardest thing to explain and the easiest thing to do. “Just do,” said K. Pattabhi Jois, the man who originated Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.
General Patton often said battle was the “most magnificent” undertaking known to man. It can be one hell of an undertaking. A chest full 0f medals’ sparkles when you’re successful. Six feet of loose dirt covers up your failures.
“The real trouble with modern war is that it gives no one a chance to kill the right people,” said Ezra Pound.
Old Blood and Guts died in an automobile accident. The Army private chauffeuring his Cadillac limousine was uninjured. K. Pattabhi Jois died of natural causes. “He was fearless about combining the path of Yoga with the path of the participant,” said David Life, the co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga.
Since Yoga doesn’t self-identify with any nation-state, doesn’t live by the eye-for-an-eye of the tiger, and isn’t interested in looting all your stuff, it doesn’t issue declarations and ultimatums. It doesn’t blow its stack, launching smart bombs, armed drones, and coming-to-your-world soon, fully autonomous weapons systems.
Practicing Yoga is practicing getting your hands on freedom, no matter how elusive it may be. It’s not about getting your hands on the other guy’s cargo, no matter how bright and shiny and phenomenal it is.
More cargo, more loot, more territory means keeping your nose to the grindstone in order to keep it all in your corner of the world. Yoga means sloughing off the wet dream of more glory, more prizes, more pride, in victory.
Freedom isn’t about riding the merry-go-round and grabbing, grasping, snatching at the brass ring. Hell, what would you do with it anyway?
The Totenkopf military hat features a human skull, mandible, and two crossed long bones. The black-clad Hussar cavalry of Frederick the Great were the first to wear them. The death-head hats scared the hell out of the other guys, making it clear what was at stake.
Even though the Dalai Lama has said, “Awareness of death is the very bedrock of the path,” death-head hats are never worn by anyone at any time anywhere in any Yoga class.
If Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II had taken off his skull-and-crossbones hat in 1902, put his hair up into a bun, and gotten on a Yoga mat instead of scowling all the time, he might not have walked off the plank right into WW1. But he didn’t, and 12 years later, it was time for trench warfare. Since WW2 was a direct consequence of the War to End All Wars, maybe that wouldn’t have happened either.
In 1938, just before the start of WW2, French biologist Jean Rostond said, “Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god.”
What a difference a hat can make, not just in fashion, but in what determines the fate of birds on the wing too. The last German Emperor abdicated in 1918, grew a beard, and spent the rest of his life chopping wood and hunting birds. He bagged tens of thousands of them in the next 20 years. The neighborhood flocks thought he was an avenging angel.
Only one man has ever returned Uncle Sam’s Medal of Honor.
Charlie Liteky, a combat chaplain, without a weapon, flak jacket, or helmet, dragged 23 wounded soldiers out of a Viet Cong ambush in 1967, evacuating them to safety. He later opposed the war, and other wars, such as the invasions of Iraq. “I think it’s more of a patriotic duty of citizens of this country to stand up and say that this is wrong, that this is immoral,” he said.
But one man’s immorality is another man’s morality, especially if those men are Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. The three largest defense companies in the world are USA companies. “You fasten all the triggers, for the others to fire,” sang Bob Dylan in ‘Masters of War’.
The United States controls more than 50% of the global weaponry market. Yoga controls 100% of the global Yoga mat market. Only you control whether the world that’s always trying to make you something else gets its way.
Violence is the bread and butter of war. Warfare is a dangerous world filled with rough men, and lately, rough women too. It is a world where the end justifies the means. Ahimsa, or non-violence, is the bread and butter of Yoga The practice does not abjure self-defense, but it doesn’t propagate violence as a means, no matter what the end might be.
Non-violence is the first article of the first limb of Yoga. Ahimsa in action is not doing harm. It’s simple enough, but easier said than done.
The first step is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Unless you’re a psychopath, the doing will be non-violent. The next step might be to not march in ideological lockstep with anybody’s army. It doesn’t matter if it’s President Trump or President Putin or President Xi Jinping. Their interests are not necessarily in your best interest.
It’s pointless to complain about the weather. War is a longtime turmoil as old as the weather, as old as our gods. “May God have mercy on my enemies, because I won’t,” said George Patton. Sometimes it seems like there is no resisting the winds of war. It would be like trying to win a hurricane.
When the Junior Bush and Elder Cheney administration wanted to invade Iraq over nothing Iraq had done, there was no stopping it.
If it all sounds like a shell game, that’s because it is. The shells of rockets’ red glare, the litter of shells, the damage done, and political military industrial hacks shelling out pipe dreams of heroism. When you’re dead as a doornail, it doesn’t matter who won the war.
The side of the moon facing away from the earth is the far side, the flip side. It is the side facing out to the cosmos. The bright side is what makes some moonstruck, making them go crazy when there’s a full moon.
John Bell Hood was a General in the Civil War on the Confederate side. He was notoriously brave and aggressive, and a madman.
His troops routinely suffered staggering losses staging frontal assaults they were routinely ordered into. During the Seven Days Battles in 1862, every single officer in his brigade was either killed or wounded. In 1863, at Gettysburg, Hood’s left arm was severely injured and he lost use of it for the rest of his life. In 1864, at Chickamauga, his right leg had to be amputated just below the hip.
For the rest of the Civil War, he rode into battle with his left arm tied to his body and his body tied to the body of his horse. “He has body enough left,” one witness remarked, watching Johnny Reb lock horns with the Yankees again.
The macabre spectacle of the one-armed one-legged Hood, trailed by an orderly carrying his replacement cork leg, was not his alone. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides of the Civil War lost arms and legs. That’s the damage all wars do, civil or not so civil, lopping off limbs, scrambling brains, filling up cemeteries.
Yoga, on the other hand, is not only a practice intent on keeping your arms and legs attached to your body, it is a practice that conjures additional limbs to those willing to take up the mantle of the mat. The discipline in the classic sense is an eight-limb practice. The limbs are restraint, observance, posture, breath control, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and samadhi, which means standing inside of.
The walk of life can be hard enough with two arms and two legs. It’s much harder when missing an arm or a leg, or both. It’s much easier with eight extra limbs.
“When we talk about war, we’re talking about peace,” said President George W. Bush. In the world of doublespeak, slavery is freedom and war is known as peace. In the world of Yoga, freedom is freedom and non-war is known as peace. No fooling. Only fools try to fool themselves.
The masters of war would have you believe that taking up the gun will solve all the problems of taking up the gun. “The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over,” said William Tecumseh Sherman. General Sherman is known for the Savannah Campaign of 1864, slashing through Georgia and South Carolina, innovating what is now known as scorched earth warfare.
“Yoga is not easy!” said K. Pattabhi Jois. “But, it leads to freedom.” He is known for inspiring and influencing the way Yoga is taught and practiced all over the world.
Warrior Pose on the Yoga mat is about fighting the good fight, not fighting the other guy. It’s about challenge, strength, fortitude.
Standing on one leg in a Yoga class may be cruel and unusual punishment, but at least you’re standing. Not only that, the standing is getting you somewhere. Getting anywhere in the Fog of War is up for grabs, at best, and on a collision course with Hell, at worst.
When it comes to getting on the good side of the Pearly Gates, war doesn’t have a leg to stand on.