Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just. …A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Still, the Pentagon suggests that Martin Luther King “might” have supported the war in Afghanistan. Not sure on what basis.
Last night at the Willow Street Book Club, where we were reading Ram Dass’s Paths to God–Living the Bhagavad Gita, one of my fellows raised the question of how we could read as a spiritual guide a book whose context is war. Another asked a similar question from the perspective of a feminist. It was a fabulous, engaged, lively discussion, and I hope to see more next month.
It would be an injustice to the text and the historical context to read entirely out of the Bhagavad Gita the duty of a warrior to kill, a wife to practice suttee, and persons born into each caste to accept their lot in life in a society structured on the caste system. There is much richness in the text, though, that can provide guidance for a feminist, pacifist, who believes that “all men are created equal.”
We have reread “men” in the Declaration of Independence to include women and those of all races (though we cannot manage to rewrite the Constitution to explicitly state that women are equal, but that’s a thought for another day). Similarly, without doing injustice to the text, we can see that the ultimate teachings about living in accordance with duty (svadharma), love, devotion, and sacrifice in the Gita, like the concepts of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” provide guidance and force for social action and spiritual devotion beyond a historical context that oppressed and bound on the worldly plane the very persons who are now seeking the deeper meanings in the text. In fact, I believe that we can use the essential intent of the text to teach and transform the oppressors, to use the very text to show why the violence and oppression of the historical context is injust and needs to be changed so that the spiritual intent can be expanded and spread beyond the privileged.
Svadharma, from sva (self) and dharma (duty) means our personal path, duty, calling, or place. The principle of svadharma is a significant teaching in various yoga texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita, especially emphasizing the importance in acting in accordance with one’s caste (for example, Arjuna needing to act in accordance with his dharma as a warrior) or one’s sex (consider Sita’s role in the Ramayana).
Extrapolating this teaching and taking it onto the mat, during one of the practice sessions the previous week at the Certified Teachers’ Gathering, John Friend said that “every part of the the body has its own svadharma to increase the pranic flow.” He then said that if you just took a photo of the feet of an Anusara yoga practitioner in any pose, you should be able to see that the whole body was fully engaged and active. John Friend’s teaching here was not just using the yoga philosophy as a catalyst to better understand the body. By using the principle to illuminate the practice, the practice reflectively illuminated the principle itself, without denying or denigrating its original context or getting bogged down in its historical baggage of perpetuating the caste system and demarcated, subservient roles for women.
Thinking about the svadharma of the pinky toe has no such baggage. The pinky toes are homely looking things, they do not fit well into most women’s shoes, they rather painfully bump into things, and they are hard to move independently. They are not essential for living and do not have the emotional charge of the heart and brain, the exquisite connection to the world of the sense organs, or the connection to life itself of the lungs. Despite this, the call to lift and spread the toes, to draw the pinky toe toward the heel, or the hip happens just about every time I go to the mat in my practice or teach a class. Activating the pinky toe by opening it and spreading it apart from the other toes is a conscious act of opening that helps hug the shins to the midline. In hugging the shins in by means of activating the pinky toe, the yogi on the mat can then safely move the thighs back and apart, creating an expansion of the pelvic floor that provides room for more strongly tucking under the tailbone to access core power. The pinky toe thus is an important part of our practice, even if we could manage to get by without it.
But the svadharma of the pinky toe on the mat is not just to be able to help us access the movement of “shins in” so that we can better do “thighs out,” although that is an important physical part of its essence. The toe does not move on its own. We have to start by bringing our awareness and consciousness to the toe. Part of the pinky toe’s svadharma, then, is to invite the infusion of consciousness to show how full participation of even an apparently insignificant part of the body can lead us to a better understanding and personal experience of the pulsation between reaching out and hugging in and affirming ourselves. By intentionally bringing our awareness to the power we can unleash in the pose by the movement of the pinky toe, we bring the opportunity for greater strength, expansion, and flow of energies. This is why, I think, John Friend suggested that by just seeing the toes we should be able to know the engagement of the whole body and mind in a particular pose.
As a practical and therapeutic matter, recognizing and bringing into play the svadharma of each and every part of the body serves to help us increase the flow of energy and expand our range of movement. In addition, activating the parts of the body that are inclined to slack (for example, the pinky toe or the adductor and abdominal muscles) will bring ease to the muscles that tend to overwork to compensate, such as the neck and low back muscles. We are not just stronger and more flexible when every part of the body does fulfills its svadharma, but we eliminate much pain and suffering. (More to come on this particular concept in other posts.)
Off the mat, when all parts of the whole are fully conscious of and know their svadharma, the whole will itself have more consciousness, more light, and better experience the bliss of being. It is easy to see, without judgment or question, that the pinky toe cannot do the work of the heart, although when the pinky toe is working it can help contribute to an integration of mind and body that will further the opening of the heart and thus the whole person. Finding our svadharma as a whole person within society does not have to be about conforming to preconceived social norms that no longer serve. The better we are able to understand where we are in time, space, and the interconnected web of being, though, the more fully we can participate in leading society itself to a more conscious and light-filled place, just as bringing our conscious awareness to the actions of the pinky toe can do the same for us as individual yogis on the mat. When we recognize and live out our true svadharma as such, we radically affirm ourselves, the community, and the very essence of all being.