Yoga versus war: going toe to yogi toe with the Pentagon
Warrior Pose, of which there are three variations, is an essential feature of many yoga asana sequences. The combat poses of soldiers in the theaters of war are as varied as the difference between Roman centurions and UAV drone operators.
The name of the warrior pose comes from Virabhandra, a hero in Indian mythology who carried a thousand clubs and wore tiger skins. It is a vigorous standing posture often integrated into sun salutations and explained as being an inspiration for the spiritual warrior.
Warrior pose in the United States Army is very different, usually a floor pose, practiced on the stomach, on one knee or in a crouching position. Instead of reaching through the arms with empty hands, like in yoga practice, the US Army variation demands keeping the arms close to the body and a strong grip on a standard issue M4A1 carbine.
Although yoga is now being taught in the ranks of the Army and is described as “a powerful supplement to combat readiness training, making soldiers better prepared for challenges they’ll face in combat,” according to Asante George in an article titled The US Army Strikes the Warrior Pose. However, it is debatable whether yoga and armed conflict are compatible, ever will be, or ever should be.
Traditionalists would argue that yoga is a path toward enlightenment and those on the path must practice with that intention, not with the intention of setting their gun sights on the whites of someone’s eyes.
“If your practice is moving you away from enlightenment, then you are not practicing yoga”, says Ganesh Das, managing director of the Jivamukti Yoga School in New York City.
But, some in the brave new world of 21st century yoga argue that yoga can and should be more than it has been, arguing that its positive energy should be devoted towards competing against one another to be the best in the class.
Combat Yoga, for example, is often touted as a “secret weapon” used by football teams like the Philadelphia Eagles and basketball stars like Lebron James to bring their playing to the next level.
“The methods developed by Combat Yoga,” says self-proclaimed yoga pioneer Bradley Perverseff, “have been designed specifically to alleviate the stigma of superfluous aspects relating to a flowery yoga practice and instead focus on the techniques which will make combat athletes better, period.”
However, not everyone in the military agrees that even today’s redefined yoga is appropriate for training our troops. They contend that it coddles rather than toughens them.
“People have said, ah, you’re babying them,” said Mark Hertling, Deputy Commanding General for Initial Military Training at the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. “You’ve got to drive them hard and work them until it hurts.”
While the question of whether yoga asana practice is appropriate training for the rigors of war is debatable, it is clear that the chain of command has not come to grips with either Ashtanga or Bikram practice.
As a means of physical readiness training for soldiers, some forms of yoga exercise may very well exceed traditional push-ups and 2-mile marches, as attested to by a recent post on the Runner’s World web site by a veteran long-distance runner.
“If I would have toughed it out the full 90 minutes at my first attempt at Bikram Yoga, I calculate I would have lost 22.5 pounds of body water weight. In other words, I would have died.”
The purpose of the military might of the United States is to preserve the security and provide for the defense of the country, and to overcome any nations responsible for aggressive acts that imperil that security, according to Title 10 of the US Code.
The United States accomplishes this with a defense budget, in the fiscal year 2012, of more than $900 billion, not including $150 billion in reserves of foreign exchange and gold. This is almost $300 billion more than the other fourteen countries in the top fifteen for defense spending combined, including China and Russia.
Even setting aside the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military spending has more than doubled since 2001. Defense takes up around 20 percent of the entire federal budget, roughly the same as Social Security, and far outstripping federal spending on transportation, education and science, combined.
Americans as a nation spend more than $2,875.00 per person—man, woman and child, on defense annually.
The purpose of yoga is to unite the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of life. Its goal is to unite ourselves with our highest nature, not with Smith and Wesson.
“It is to cultivate discernment, awareness, self-regulation and higher consciousness in the individual,” according to David Surrenda, the Chief Executive Officer of Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. In the United States approximately $6 billion a year is spent on yoga, mainly on hatha exercise practices, which might be the least important of the different kinds of yoga.
Americans, as a nation, spend less than $19.00 per person—man, woman, and child, on yoga annually.
Even with the biggest defense budget of all time, only matched by the years 1944 and 1945 when adjusted for inflation, and 33% higher than at the peak of the Vietnam War, Americans apparently still do not feel safe. More than 16 million background checks for gun sales were made in 2011, according to the FBI, and more guns were purchased in the United States that year than there are active duty military members in the world’s other fourteen largest armies, including China and Russia, combined.
Whether we are safer paying nearly $3,000.00 a year for our military readiness or $19.00 a year for our spiritual readiness, is a moot point. Whether all the guns we amass in our private arsenals really gets us where we want to go, or whether some poses and breath work and meditation might not be better in the long run, is also moot.
Going toe-to-toe with the Pentagon, a five-story behemoth built of 680,000 tons of gravel and sand dredged from the nearby Potomac River, the often-barefoot practice of yoga is at a decided disadvantage. The Pentagon, headquarters of the Department of Defense, is one of the world’s largest office buildings. The National Capitol could fit into any one of the five wedge-shaped sections. With approximately 23,000 employees, the Pentagon is virtually a city in itself.
Not even Bikram Choudhury’s World Headquarters in Los Angeles is remotely close to the size of the Pentagon.
More people practice yoga in America, approximately 16 million of them, than are in the armed forces, of which there are currently 1.5 million enlisted, with another 1.5 million reserve personnel. But, the pool on which the Pentagon can draw is far larger than yoga’s mailing list. There are more than 22 million veterans in the United States, as well as 120 million men and women classified as being fit for military service.
Most people practice yoga two or three times week to tone up or de-stress. They come to the practice because of bad backs or seeking an alternative meaning to modern life. They fill out a waiver at a studio, stretch and sweat for an hour, and if all goes well buy a ten-class package to get started. With any luck, some are seduced or convinced that yoga practice, in some part or all of its forms, is worthwhile and weave it into the fabric of their lives.
Increasingly there are those who internalize the practice and live by its eight-fold path as a way of leading a meaningful and purposeful existence.
In the armed forces duty to God and the country is 24/7, regardless of anything else you may or may not believe in. Joining the military is an all-or-nothing proposition, especially for those who serve in combat. All inductees must take the Oath of Enlistment, in which they verbally “solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, so help me God.”
The oath is traditionally performed standing at attention in front of the stars and stripes.
If it came to a fight, yoga would be badly out-gunned by the Pentagon. From aircrafts to ships to technology, the Pentagon has a leg up on yoga that is overwhelming. It can muster 2,384 Navy ships, 18,234 war planes and more than 9,000 M1A2 Abrams tanks, the best armed, electronically sophisticated and heavily armored battle tank built anywhere in the world, ever.
The best yoga might do is muster a battalion or two of very experienced warrior pose yogis.
Ever since ground was broken for the Pentagon on September 11, 1941, the United States has been at war with someone somewhere every day of every year ever since. But, for all the power the Pentagon can bring to bear, it begs the question of why its record on the battlefield since WWII has been a patchwork of compromised victories and decisive defeats, such as in Vietnam. Only Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s was a success, in conjunction with a coalition of allies and a UN resolution.
Today, after 11 years, as the United States prepares to pull out of Afghanistan in 2014, with almost 2,000 Americans dead, 16,000 wounded, and 400 billion dollars spent, whatever the mission was in that country has not been accomplished. By all accounts the Taliban, the many Tajik and Pashtun warlords ruling their own little fiefs, and the Afghan Army are all preparing for civil war once Operation Enduring Freedom is discontinued.
It has been estimated by Francis Beer, a political scientist at the University of Colorado, that more than 14,000 wars have taken place between 3500 BC and the late 20th century, resulting in more than 3.5 billion lives lost. By his measure there have only been about 300 years of relative peace in that 5500-year span.
What has it all been for?
“War, what is it good for, absolutely nothing,” Edwin Starr sang in his 1970 Billboard #1 Hot 100 Motown hit War.
Killing one man is a capital crime. Killing 10 men is mass murder. Killing 100 men is slaughter, beyond the pale of crime and into the realm of massacre. But, killing 1000 men is called war and honored as a triumph. Capital crimes are condemned while wars make for medals, parades, and history.
“This the rulers of the earth all recognize,” wrote Mozi, a Chinese philosopher of the 5th century BC. “Yet, when it comes to the greatest crime—waging war on another state—they praise it! It is clear they do not know it is wrong, for they record such deeds to be handed down to posterity. If they knew they were wrong, why should they wish to record them and have them handed down to posterity?”
All peoples and all states justify all their wars.
The Roman Empire, the most ruthless in history, fought every one of its wars under the rubric of a defensive response to a threat. This form of imperialism was declared by its Senate before the start of every conflict. The North fought the Civil War to preserve the Union, while the South fought the Civil War to preserve their honor and way of life. The Israelis fight for their homeland and the Palestinians fight for their homeland. The problem is that it is all the same homeland.
“Most Palestinians believe that the intifada [the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip] succeeded,” said Ami Ayalon, former director of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security system. “They believe that we understand only the language of force. Most Israelis believe that we won because Palestinians understand only the language of force.”
States make war for many reasons, among them self-defense, resource competition, border disputes and international recognition. Institutions like the Pentagon are the fulcrum on which states depend in order to wield their power to make war.
People practice yoga for many reasons, among them muscular and cardiovascular health, undoing stress, mind-body unity and what can be described as connecting to the whole. Practiced regularly it increases ones physical and emotional well-being, mental clarity and spiritual connection. It becomes the font of true power, not power at the end of a gun barrel.
“Yoga practice aims to reset our physical, mental and emotional rhythms to their natural states, “ says Dinbandhu Sarley, former Chief Executive Officer of Kripalu. “We experience this resonance as a spiritual experience.”
Yoga boot camps are far different than United States Army boot camps. There are no firing ranges or bayonet drills. The reason is that warfare is not a natural state, no matter mankind’s history of endless war.
Most men and women are reluctant to kill other men and women. That is why today’s all-volunteer US Army is made up of the disadvantaged and unemployed.
In Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command on Future War, the chief US Army combat historian of World War II and the Korean conflict, Samuel Marshall, revealed that only one in four combat soldiers ever fired their guns in World War II, while at most only 15 percent of available firepower was ever deployed.
If it came to a fight with yoga, the Pentagon, even with all its vaunted firepower, might not have the advantage it seems to have if its soldiers won’t fire their guns.
One reason that yoga might have an advantage is that the discipline of the practice brings balance, flexibility, strength and stamina to both body and mind. It is only with those attributes that ahimsa, or nonviolence, with one another, as well as oneself, can be successfully practiced.
“Nonviolence must never come from weakness but from strength,” writes Mark Kurlansky in Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea. “Only the strongest and most disciplined people can hope to achieve it.”
Even though there is no proactive word in any language for nonviolence, ahimsa is one of the guiding principles of yoga practice. Although all religions abjure violence, unlike all other religions and spiritual systems, such as Christianity, Islam and even Buddhism, yoga has not been co-opted by the state, its nonviolent pose has not been twisted to serve power politics, ever.
Christians since Sr. Augustine have fought “just” wars, even though Jesus was not on the side of war makers, but rather on the side of peace makers. Muslims pronounce jihad whenever they propose to do violence, even though the Quran never uses the term jihad for fighting in the name of Allah. Zen Buddhism and Japanese militarism were intertwined from the Meiji Restoration of the 19th century through World War II.
In a knock-down-drag-out fight between the Pentagon and yoga, only yoga would bring the power of its convictions to the fray. When the First Gulf War ended in the 1990s General Norman “Stormin’ Norman” Schwartzkopf, the field commander of the Coalition Forces, triumphantly declared, “God must have been on our side!”
What was on his side were a fleet of M1A2 Abrams tanks and a beehive of cruise missiles, not God. God is not on the side of war makers, no matter what the war makers say. If he were, then it would be every man for himself and God against all.
Whether or not to go to war is a moral argument. Yoga’s stance is that nonviolence is the first principle. Yoga renounces warfare. The state’s stance is that a force of arms is its first avenue of authority. The state accepts war because states believe that without militaries they are impotent.
Yoga proposes that peace cannot be achieved through violence. The state proposes that war is the way peace is won.
“I just want you to know,” said President George W. Bush, “that when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace.”
Violence does not resolve contentious issues between people or their states. “Peace cannot be achieved through violence,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the first Americans to study Vedic texts in the 19th century.
Violence always leads to more violence, which is why more than 14,000 wars have been fought in the past 5500 years. Yoga postulates that peace can only be attained through dynamic compassion and understanding, which is why there has never been a single war waged by any yoga community against another, ever.
“When you start to understand how karma works, you realize how you treat others determines how much suffering you experience,” says Sharron Gannon, co-creator of Jivamukti Yoga.
If push came to shove and there was a standoff between the Pentagon and yoga, the winning side would be the side that stuck to their guns. The Pentagon has many resources, but they are not limitless. They would also be faced with the fact that the longer any war continues the less popular it becomes. Finally, they would be fighting against an idea that, like Gandhi’s idea for India in the 1930’s and 1940s, is almost impossible to defeat, as long as the idea sticks to its guns.
“If the violent side can provoke the nonviolent side into violence, the violent side has won,” writes Mark Kurlansky.
Yoga’s battalions of warrior pose yogis might be the most formidable foe the Pentagon has faced in a long time. Ahimsa is the first and primary goal of anyone who practices yoga sincerely. It is at the very root of the practice. Wars are ultimately fought to win hearts and minds. The hearts and minds of yogis are stronger and more resilient than any weapon the Pentagon can wield. Provoking yogis into violence would be a hard pull even for the Pentagon.
Pulling a trigger is easy. Living a conviction is hard.
“The more we sweat in peace the less we bleed in war,” says Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, the one-time Indian representative to the UN Human Rights Commission.
Yoga makes samadhi—union with the divine—not war, leading to the wild blue yonder. The Pentagon makes war, which leads to more war, leading to more and more dead ends, and to the other definition of samadhi, which is a funerary monument.
Yoga opens the heart while the Pentagon puts a bullet into it.
The ultimate problem the Pentagon has is that it has not read the Bhagavad Gita, the most dangerous existing explication of yoga, while yogis know it inside and out. If nothing else, yoga teaches how to hold ones ground, which is what warrior pose is all about.
When the war starts the Pentagon won’t know what hit it.
Edward Staskus lives in Lakewood, Ohio with his wife, Vanessa, practices yoga and subscribes to Buddhism.
Editor: Maja Despot
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