It is said that the perfect practitioner of YOGA can be in a heavenly environment, or a hellish one, and it would make no difference to them, as the source of their peace is within.
Most of us, however, are not perfect in our yoga practice. And so, just like Arjuna was, we are affected by our surroundings, which can significantly impact our state of being.
It is natural for the world around us -and those we share our world with- to affect us. We would hardly be human, if they didn’t! We human beings, after all, are interdependent creatures with our environments. Therefore, it is part of our very existence to absorb the impact of our surroundings.
What the Gita would like us to look at is if we are allowing our surroundings to affect us in ways that enhance our yoga practice, or not.
Everything that enhances our yoga practice is part of yoga. Everything that does not is called vi-yoga, and pulls us away from deriving the most benefit from our surroundings.
The key rests in becoming conscious of what kind of relationship we are in with the places, things and people around us, and of what kind of role we play in these relationships. This is what Krishna asked Arjuna to do on the battlefield.
Yoga is about choosing how we let the places, and the people, and the things in our lives affect us.
The Bhagavad Gita divides environments, human behavior and even objects into three main categories that define their overall nature. Some offer support to a thriving yoga practice, and others can cripple it, as Krishna explains to Arjuna in chapter fourteen. According to yoga philosophy, each of these categories are said to have arisen from primordial energies that characterize the very constituents of the physical universe itself.
Consistent with the views of modern, quantum physicists, these ancient observations made in the Gita, amazingly describe universal energies that vibrate from slower to faster frequencies, and inform us how these vibrations affect our consciousness!
Denser vibrations lead to a denser, or darker consciousness: what the Gita calls, tamas. Surrounding ourselves with places, people or things that vibrate primarily with lethargic, tamasic energy will leave us feeling discouraged and uninspired in yoga.
Lighter vibrations lead to a more illuminated, or sattvic, consciousness. Sattvic surroundings and company have a delightfully uplifting effect on us that is most conducive to a rewarding yoga practice.
Finally, the middle category is called rajas, and according to the Gita, it perpetuates a cyclical stagnation, which can feel very productive to us, but ultimately just takes us in circles, wasting our time.
Yoga is about becoming sensitive to what uplifts us most in our practice, and seeking out more of that same energy.
When Krishna describes one who is absorbed in yoga, he characterizes such a person as having “the nature of sattva” in chapter seventeen. Then to further emphasize this to Arjuna, Krishna connects an “undisturbed practice of yoga” to one who is determined. This determination, Krishna tells us, is also “of the nature of sattva”.
The senses are the channels through which we take in the raw world around us. The mind is the filter through which we interpret every one of our sensorial experiences. And the breath is the reflector of how these experiences impact us on an emotional level. When we are determined to have all these three (the mind, the sense and the breath) work together harmoniously to enhance our yoga practice, we are benefiting ourselves with the sattvic energy available to us in our surroundings.
Yoga is a conscious effort to surround oneself with places, people and things that all vibrate the quality of sattva.
In Sanskrit, the original language of the Gita, the word sattva can have several specific meanings depending on the context in which it appears. For the most part it stands for clarity, purity, goodness and illumination.
To the degree that our lifestyle reflects sattvic qualities, to that degree our consciousness stands a greater chance to benefit from its positive influence: an influence that will greatly enhance any yoga practice!
Usually, over the course of an entire day, a person will encounter all three of the energies the Gita speaks of, appearing before them in one form or another. Because these are qualities of nature itself, all three: (sattva, rajas and tamas), are useful to us in some capacity.
For example, our body slows down to a tamasic vibration each time we sleep, and we engage the passion of rajas when we procreate. These are not at all undesirable energies in beneficial contexts. They become undesirable, however, when we allow ourselves to be overcome by them in destructive ways. In the Gita, Krishna talks to Arjuna about the value of being sensitive to this.
Yoga is determination aimed at maintaining a sattvic consciousness to best benefit us in our practice, and in our lives.
As we become more and more aware of the predominating energies in each specific space we enter into, or relationship we participate in, or even in the food we ingest, or music we listen to, we will feel more and more determined to maintain the one’s that support us, and let go of the ones that don’t. Krishna calls this the yoga of discernment.
Practicing the yoga of discernment takes much determination, as human beings can become terribly attached, and even addicted, to the very things that destroy them.
Think about all the places you go, people you hang out with, and experiences you voluntarily expose yourself to that have an eroding effect on your inner peace and joy, negatively impacting your consciousness. If they outweigh all the positive influences in your life, then you are practicing a dangerous low level of yoga. How much of your time and energy do they really consume, and is it worth it?
Instead of being gluttonous for our doom, the Gita urges us to thrive through yoga.
The less we frequent the places and people that bring us down, and surround ourselves with those that uplift us, the more our own behavior will also reflect that inspiring, sattvic quality. So how does one behave who is practicing yoga?
Yoga, like Sattvic behavior is characterized by qualities of love, clarity and peace, and describes actions we are fully conscious of, which reflect a specific intent.
Rajasic behavior is identified by its impulsive actions, greed and intense attachment, and they stem from semi-conscious motives. And tamasic behavior is known for its bewilderment, lethargy and negligence, and usually originates in our sub-conscious mind.
Long before Freud and Jung, the Gita asks humanity to examine behavior. This ancient text begins with an inquiry into the way the warriors on the battlefield behaved. And it does so, in part, to emphasize how behavior reflects consciousness, and consciousness influences behavior.
“How did they act, O Sanjaya?” This question into human behavior, spoken by the blind king Dhritarashtra, is what gives us all front row seats to this famous dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna. During that famous exchange of words, action that reflects the nature of sattva, is deemed most desirable.
Here we are faced with a great irony: The violent behavior that follows -as Arjuna and the other warriors race into the battlefield to slaughter each other- appears to be of a rajasic, tamasic nature. And yet, Arjuna, who previously resisted the fight, rides his chariot into the battlefield without any reservations after his illuminating conversation with Krishna. To this I’ve heard many readers of the Gita ask: Why?
Why does Arjuna participate in the battle, after having had such an enlightening experience?
I’ve known people who even refuse to read the Gita for this very reason: They are literally repulsed by the fact that one of the greatest books on yoga revolves around a war. Isn’t an effect of practicing yoga that violence decreases between humans? Doesn’t a sattvic-approach-to-living lead to peace?
When Arjuna rode into battle he felt at total peace with his choice to do so.
Arjuna thus behaved in a sattvic manner as defined by the Gita in the last chapter. After his conversation with Krishna, the formerly depressed and bewildered Arjuna exhibited newfound confidence and discipline, freedom from attachment, and felt unbound by neither repulsion nor passion. Arjuna rode forth with fresh energy and steadfastness, and had no particular preference for how things turned out in the end. He was in the moment, participating fully in his life, holding on to that by which he “perceived in all beings one everpresent being, who is undivided among divided beings”. (Chapter 18, text 20, Graham M. Schweig’s translation)
At the end of the Gita, Arjuna arrived at a point of clarity, his initial doubts dispelled and his confusion conquered.
But this was only after Arjuna recognized that the three qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas, were all equally part of the energies that construct the physical universe. Thus, one of the few questions Arjuna asked of Krishna in the Gita was how to transcend them all together. Arjuna wanted to go even beyond sattva!
~Krishna’s response in the Gita consistently points to love.~
Yoga is the divine love that transcends even the sattvic energy that originally nourished it.
Krishna also tells Arjuna that the “greatest secret of all”, the most “supreme message” he could give him on to how to accomplish this, is by focusing on the single highest point, or ekagrah.
According to Krishna, what is this ekagrah?
The ekagrah, or climax of the Bhagavad Gita from a bhakti-yoga perspective, is found in verse 64 of chapter 18, in which Krishna declares: “You are so much loved by me!”, or ishto ‘si me dridham iti.
It is significant that Krishna expresses his love for Arjuna immediately after he tells him that he is free to act as he chooses in the previous verse. This is a critical juxtaposition in this ancient yoga text that strongly emphasizes the intimate relationship between our freedom to act as we wish, and love.
~Simply put: love is never forced.~
We love because we choose to do so. And it is this same freedom-of-choice that humans employ when they enter into war with each other, accentuated as Arjuna rides forth into battle.
From start to finish, the Gita focuses on our innate freedom. Without it, there can be no love. And, according to the Gita, it is this entirely volitional, loving exchange between Krishna and all living beings, that makes Krishna the “Supreme Lord of Yoga”, or Yogeshvara, as Krishna is called in the very last verse of the Bhagavad Gita.
~The Supreme Yogi is that person who loves everyone!~
Who, then, would be a better yoga teacher then Yogeshvara? And according to the Gita, anyone who meditates on Krishna Yogeshvara’s words to Arjuna, with their minds and hearts focused on the “single highest point”, can directly experience the good fortune of being Krishna’s yoga student, close friend, and even his beloved!
This article is the penultimate post in a series of 20 articles based on “Krishna’s 10 Definitions of Yoga in the Gita”: a series written and compiled by myself, and Braja Sorensen. You can read all the articles here Join us next Sunday for the final post in this series, by Braja. Then we will continue with new subjects that will further explore the ancient yoga text of the Bhagavad Gita. If you have any favorite topics you’d like to read about, please share them with us in the comments. Thank you!