When I first became interested in yoga nigh on 15 years ago, I did it purely for the asanas. I wanted to be lithe and bendy, and I wanted to be able to stick some impressively twisty poses. As a teenager who was raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, there was no way I was ready for the mind blowing and alien concepts of yogic philosophy. But in college, I was exposed to the Tao Te Ching, which led (eventually, after a difficult decade of complete faithlessness) to Buddhist philosophies, which has in turn piqued my interest in the metaphysical realm of yoga and Hinduism. While I’m not gung ho about one particular philosophy or theology or another, I have more or less bought into the idea that I’m part of something greater, even if that “greater” thing is simply derived from notion that matter is neither created nor destroyed. If the energy from my body is eventually used to fertilize a tree, then I’m down with that. I’d like to think that there’s something more, a Way, the Force, or the like (I’m not as keen on anthropomorphic gods at the moment, but I respect the concept), but if all I get is tree fertilizer, that’s still infinitely better than the vast nothingness I feared during my Catholic upbringing.
For a variety of reasons, the most important being that I’m ready for a little mind expansion, I’ve spent a good chunk of the summer reading Hindu texts. I just finished reading the Bhagavad Gita for the first time, and I think I understand why it is a pivotal text for the study of yoga, and why it is also revered as an accessible handbook for life in general.
Just as a bit of background, the Bhagavad Gita is small section of a massive Indian epic, the Mahabharata. In this section, the hero Arjuna must face his kinsmen in battle in order to gain control of the kingdom, and he’s naturally feeling uneasy about this. How can he kill his kin and remain free from sin? Luckily, the god Krishna is his charioteer, and the Gita is both Krishna’s argument to Arjuna to join the battle, and also an explanation of the nature of man and the Supreme Spirit. In the end, Arjuna does indeed fight, and emerges victorious.
I’ve read the Rig Veda and the classic Upanishads, but to me, only the Gita translates well to modern (and Western) readers. Not only does it provide a manual for living in harmony, but it also presents a concept of the Divine that allows for the worship of deities and for those (like me) who’d rather contemplate the oneness of all things. The Bhagavad Gita may feature an anthropomorphic god, but Krishna himself states that he is “the beginning and the middle and the end of all things,” that he is “what is and what is not” (9:18-19). To me, this doctrine of oneness sounds an awful lot like Buddhist or Taoist concepts of equality and interdependence. The Gita transcends religion, and is an ideal vehicle for contemplation.
The yoga described in the Gita really has little to nothing to do with the asanas, but I think the philosophy of the Gita could be applied to asana practice. Krishna explains to Arjuna that the work of yoga can lead to the Supreme if it is done selflessly, without attachment, and without expectation for a reward. Similarly, while it might be great to be bendy, and it might be a worthwhile goal to achieve difficult and striking poses, my asana practice is the most fulfilling when I can surrender to the physical work without needing to meet the exacting demands of my ego. Krishna declares that freedom from the cycle of rebirth and death is the natural consequence of faithfulness and the work of yoga; it need not be sought after, and practitioners can continue free from attachment to outcomes. On a similar (although not so grand or consequential) note, physical well-being is a natural outcome of practicing the asanas, whether intended or not. It too can be achieved without attachment.
So there you go: ancient yogic philosophy and the Western focus on the asanas can coexist peacefully, and can even work to advance one another. Is the Gita necessary for fulfilling asana practice? Probably not, but if you’re looking to delve into yogic philosophy, it’s a great place to start. Happy reading.