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The Meaning of Sivaratri

Question: Can you please tell us about the meaning and the significance of Sivaratri?

Sri Swami Satchidananda: Like any other spiritual practices or observances, the Hindus have one night-long vigil remembering Lord Siva. They divide the night into four parts and four times Lord Siva is worshiped.

The story is once upon a time a hunter got the boon that if anybody worships Siva on this night they will go to Siva’s abode. One Sivaratri night, without knowing, a hunter who was in the jungle was chased by an animal, and he ran, got tired, climbed on a tree and the tiger was waiting for him to come down. He couldn’t come down and he couldn’t sleep there, and he doesn’t want to doze off, so he has to be doing something. He happened to be in a bilva tree and he plucked off the leaves and dropped one by one just to keep himself occupied and not go to sleep. But luckily where he dropped the leaves there was a Sivalingam on the floor. Unconsciously he was dropping bilva leaves on the Sivalingam and it happed to be Sivaratri day.

While in the tree, the hunter was thinking of his family, missing the family, he was cold and hungry, and he was also crying. So a lot of teardrops from his eyes were falling down. Toward the very end of the morning he couldn’t even come down because he became so hungry, so weak, so cold that he just collapsed and passed away.

Immediately a chariot came from the heaven and said to his soul, “Get in, come on, you’re going to go to Kailash, Lord Siva’s abode.” The hunter replied, “Sir, there seems to be something wrong here. You have probably mistaken me for somebody else. I know anything, I didn’t do anything, I was a plain, ordinary, simple hunter. Why should I go to heaven, the abode of Siva?”

“Well, sir, all we know is that we were supposed to come here and take your soul back to Kailash.” So, the hunter went up to Kailash and met Lord Siva and Goddess Parvathi and they blessed him saying, “Come on, my great devotee.” The hunter, still confused, asked, “Lord, I have a little doubt. I’ve never been your devotee. I didn’t do anything. I don’t know anything at all. I don’t even know you much. You seem to be so nice that you just picked me up from the jungle and you are blessing me with all your kindness.”

“No, my son,” replied Lord Siva. You might have done all bad things all your life, but just the last day of your life you spent in Siva puja.”

“What, sir? What, Siva puja? What is that?” I spent the last day of my life in the jungle for an animal to kill.”

“No,” explained Lord Siva. “That night was a Sivaratri night and the tree you climbed up was a bilva tree. The leaves of the tree are very dear to me. So you were on that tree and you pulled the leaves and you were dropping them down and right underneath there was a Sivalingam. That Sivalingam had been in an old shrine that has been since abandoned and no one did any worship there for a long time. You bathed the Sivalingam with your tears and you worshipped the Sivalingam with bilva leaves. And you spent the whole night there and then in the morning you passed away. So you deserve all the benefits of a great devotee who worshipped Lord Siva on a Sivaratri day. That’s why you are here.” Then Lord Siva said, “Now please ask us anything you want, any boon you want, and I’ll give it to you.

The hunter replied, “Sir, I really don’t know what to ask. It looks like I have everything. Having come and seen you, I’m getting your blessing, what else do I need? I don’t need anything anymore. Maybe because you are asking me this, I will ask for one gift. If anyone worships you on a Sivaratri day, in a traditional way or in their own simple way and keeps up the vigil, and the whole night thinking of you, please bestow upon them the some kindness and grace that you are bestowing upon me.”

Lord Siva told the hunter, “I’m glad that you didn’t ask anything for yourself. Even at this moment you are thinking of the entire humanity. So be it, I will grant your wish.

Since that day, whomsoever worshipped Lord Siva on a Sivaratri day, keeping up the vigil, thinking of Siva, and worshipping in whatever they could, would receive Lord Siva’s blessings

Whether this really happened or not we don’t know, but the idea is if you keep a vigil on that night and keep on worshiping, your spiritual practice is well grounded. That’s the essence.

In a way that is the reason why on Sivaratri we stay up the whole night and we keep on doing the puja—the same puja every two hours or three hours. You do a puja and then spend a little time in between and then do the puja again. It takes about an hour or two sometimes. An elaborate puja can take three hours. And as soon as that is finished, then within another ten or fifteen minutes take off everything off the deity and redo the whole puja.

If you do a puja like that four times, that means the whole night is gone. So to keep people occupied in doing something so that they can keep up the vigil we do these pujas. The main point to control the senses that normally would put you to sleep. That is what you call Sivaratri.

So the significance of Sivaratri is just remembering God at least one day of the year, and spending the whole night in that remembering. That way you are winning over your senses by fasting and vigil. The essence of Yoga is to gain mastery over your own mind, and the mastery over your own mind means mastery over your own senses.

On festivities days you fast, which means keeping control over the taste buds, and you keep silence, which is control of the tongue. During Sivaratri, we ensure that we keep a vigil and employ all the senses in a holy pursuit at least one day a year.

But that doesn’t mean at other times you can do anything you want. It’s always better to have good control over your senses and through having control over your senses you are having control over your own mind, because the mind functions through the senses. So when you learn how to control your mind and you become the master of your mind, you can achieve anything you want. Nothing is impossible for a person who has good control over one’s own mind.

May the Lord Siva shower His choicest blessings on you all, so that you can remain in perfect health and in total peace and bliss, to serve always.  That is my sincere prayer on this day.

From satsang February 22, 1997 at Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville

 

 

Veganism Is Not An Option

Veganism Is Not An Option

Will Tuttle

Dr. Will Tuttle’s book, The World Peace Diet, is the first book to make explicit the invisible connections between our culture, our food and the source of our broad range of problems—and the way to a positive transformation in our individual and collective lives. In this article, he talks about the true essence of veganism—which is based on the truth of the interconnectedness of all life.

Ram Dass popularized the saying, “We are not human beings endeavoring to have a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings endeavoring to have a human experience.” These words point to a truth that can help us reorient our approach to living, and recognize the basis of our own nature: that we are fundamentally whole, complete and perfect expressions of the infinite Source of all life, which manifests as all of us—all beings of all dimensions and universes—All of Us.

Because cultures have universally intuited this truth, prohibitions against harming other human beings have always been established, protecting peoples’ right to explore and express for the brief time they are here on this earth. Anthropologists refer to these prohibitions as the four universal taboos, which cross-culturally prohibit against other humans the actions of killing, stealing, lying and harming through improper sexuality. In our culture today, we are evolving toward an understanding of these prohibitions that includes animals as well: seeing that, just as it is a violation to harmfully interfere with Spirit’s experience of being a human, it is also a violation to harmfully interfere with Spirit’s experience of being an animal.

As we evolve spiritually, we become more awake to the truth of inter-being, that all living beings are profoundly interconnected, and that by harming others, I harm myself because the life in that apparent “other” is the same life that lives in this apparent “me.” As our hearts open to deeper understanding, our circle of compassion thus automatically enlarges and spontaneously begins to include more and more “others.” Not just our own tribe, sect, nation or race, but all human beings, and not just humans, but other mammals, and birds, fish, forests and the whole beautifully-interwoven tapestry of living, pulsing creation. All of Us.

When love is thus born in our hearts, we want only the best for others, for we directly see them as ourselves. The imprisoning illusion of a fundamentally separate self, struggling against other selves for its own rewards, is transcended, and our life becomes dedicated to bringing peace, joy and fulfillment to others. This brings us our greatest joy and is the flowering of the highest form of love, which is compassion.

We must, if this process is actually happening in us, be drawn toward veganism, and it is in no way a limitation on us, but the harmonious fulfillment of our own inner seeing. We realize that veganism is not an option that we can choose, but that it is the free expression of the truth of what we are. It is not an ethic that we have to police from outside, but our own radiant love spontaneously expressing. Caring is born on this earth and lives through us, as us, and it is not anything we can personally take credit for. It is nothing to be proud of. Veganism is the natural result of seeing that is no longer confined to the dark and rigid dungeon of narrow self-interest. It is not even “veganism.” That’s all looking from the outside. We live, serve and give thanks for this precious life arising through All of Us. It may look like and be called veganism, but it is not an option. It is simply the expression of our own true nature.

Rev. Will Tuttle, Ph.D. is an award-winning speaker, educator, author and musician. His music, writings and presentations focus on creativity, intuition and compassion. Rev. Tuttle presents about 150 events yearly at conferences, retreats and progressive churches and centers throughout North America. A former Zen monk with a PhD in education from U.C., Berkeley, he has worked extensively in intuition development, spiritual healing, meditation, music, creativity, vegan living and cultural evolution. Rev. Tuttle is the author of The World Peace Diet, cofounder of Karuna Music & Art and of the Prayer Circle for Animals and Circle of Compassion ministry. For more information, please visit: www.worldpeacediet.org.

 

Reprinted from Integral Yoga Magazine, Spring 2009 issue

 

 

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Why Be a Vegetarian? By Sri Swami Satchidananda

Why Be a Vegetarian? By Sri Swami Satchidananda

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I was asked a question: “Do the Vedas teach vegetarianism?” The answer is, there is no Veda without the mention of ahimsa. “Ahimsa paramo dharmaha” means that the greatest dharma one can embrace is ahimsa. Saint Ramalinga Swamigal always said, “If you want the golden key to unlock the heaven, please be kind to all life. No saint, no sage and no scripture has ever recommended himsa (violence).”

That’s why the Patanjali Yoga Sutras and all scriptures teach us ahimsa. Reduce the hurt and reduce the violence as much as possible. Whatever you get in your life, whatever you receive in your life, let the source be love—it should come with love. Your money should come with love. Your clothing should come with love. Your food should come with love, not violence. It all should be a love offering.

Unfortunately non-vegetarian diet never comes to us with love. Have you ever heard of an animal coming to you with love and saying, “Here, please, take my thigh and make your soup”? No. The animals don’t offer their body parts to us this way; they even try to escape. They hate us because we cause violence to them. Non-vegetarian food is not a love-filled food. Even if you offer nice food—wholesome, clean and healthy food—to somebody with hatred in the mind, that food becomes poison to that person.

Whatever we eat goes to make up the body and the mind. Our thought forms go along with the things that we give. When a mother is in an angry mood and nurses the baby with her milk, the baby will fall sick. Why? The anger goes through the milk.

We are born vegetarians. Our human body is made to run on vegetarian fuel. If a car is made to run on gasoline and you put crude oil into it, it will choke and the engine will cough. It is made for gasoline, not for crude oil. Our body is made for vegetarian diet. Our intestines are much longer than the non-vegetarian animals. Our tongues are different; we don’t have claws or fangs. Compare our features to those of the non-vegetarian animals and those of the herbivorous animals. Our features are more like the goat, cow and deer.

Non-vegetarian food is not our natural food. In order for our bodies to digest meat, we have to cook it a lot. Even then it is not easily digestible, whereas fruits and other vegetables can be eaten raw. We don’t even need to have a kitchen to be vegetarian, but we have to cook meat. Meat affects the body. In the medical science now they are proving it. Meat leaves a lot of toxins, a lot of cholesterol. It leaves a lot of decayed matter. See for yourself: cut a piece of meat and leave it outside the refrigerator and, at the same time, break a carrot and leave it there. After some time, the meat will have a foul smell because it is decaying, but the vegetables will only dehydrate.

There are so many reasons for a vegetarian diet. Consider the mental attitude of the different animals and that will also show you something. All the herbivorous animals are peaceful. They are just left alone. They roam around easily, with eyes full of love. Carnivorous animals have to be caged. Even in the cage, they roam around restlessly. You can see a marked difference in the mental attitude. You can see physical differences as well. You can poke your nose into the mouth of a goat and you will never find a bad smell. But if you even go near the cage of a tiger, lion or fox, it smells awful. Why? Their excreta. Why should it have a bad odor? Because what goes in comes out. Ask a meat-eater to raise the arm up and you get an awful smell; but not in one who is a vegetarian.

Ask any engineer how they measure power—they measure in horse-power. A motor is measured by
horse-power and not tiger-power or lion-power. Why? If you have a tiger-power motor you cannot control it. Horse-power you can harness and control. Even an elephant has so much strength. It’s the strongest animal. But people invent various arguments and say that a
tiger can kill an elephant. What does that mean? The tiger has killing power, but the elephant has pulling power. What do you need: killing power or pulling power? Sattvic strength and energy is what we need,
not rajasic energy.

That is what Gandhiji meant when he spoke about “soul power.” That is sattvic energy. That is the kind of strength that we want to cultivate. A non-vegetarian diet is not conducive to cleanliness of body and strength of mind. If you want a clean body and a strong mind; if you want a tranquil body and a tranquil mind, then vegetarian food is the best. When you clean the mirror of the body-mind well, it will reflect your true nature, the divine in you. To realize God you need a clean body and a peaceful mind. When you keep your body and mind clean, in a sattvic condition and a tranquil state, then you will experience God-realization.

 

 

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Vegetarianism by Sri Swami Sivananda

Vegetarianism by Sri Swami Sivananda

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Sage Uddalaka instructed his son Svetaketu: “Food when consumed, becomes threefold. The gross particles become the excrement, the middling ones flesh, and the fine ones the mind.” My child, when curd is churned, its fine particles which rise upwards form butter. Thus, my child, when food is consumed, the fine particles which rise upwards form the mind. Hence, verily, the mind is food.”

In the Hindu view of life, the real value is placed upon the moral and spiritual worth of the man. Man is more than just body and mind; he is essentially an ever-perfect, ever-pure and ever-free spirit in his true inner nature. Human birth is given as an opportunity and a means to attain this sublime knowledge of his inner spiritual nature and to regain his divinity. In this process, all grossness and animalistic tendencies have to be totally eliminated from the human personality. Non-vegetarian diet, which is gross and animal by its very nature, is a great hindrance to this process. Whereas, pure sattvic diet is a great help to the refinement of the human nature.

The chemical components of different foods vibrate at varying rate. Each particle of food is a mass of energy. The intake of certain food-stuffs sets up discordant vibrations in the physical body which throw the mind into a state of oscillation and disequilibrium. Concentration of mind is rendered difficult and high thinking is disturbed, because elevating thoughts imply fine vibrations.

Flesh-eating involves the exercise of cruelty which is not an elevating virtue. It is a bestial quality which degrades man. Cruelty is condemned by all great men. Pythagoras condemned meat diet a sinful food. The cruel slaughter of animals and the taking of innocent lives which flesh-eating entails makes it abhorrent to all right thinking men and women all over the world. Butchery and blood-shed is a great disgrace to civilization and culture. Killing of animals for food is a great blunder; and the mentality it engenders is fraught with potential dangers for the life of humanity, a recognition of which made George Bernard Shaw say that as long as men torture and slay animals and eat their flesh, we shall have war.

If you want to stop taking mutton, fish, etc., just see with your own eyes the pitiable, struggling condition of the animals at the time of killing. Now mercy and sympathy will arise in your heart. You will determine to give up flesh-eating…. If this also cannot give you sufficient strength to stop this habit, go to the slaughter-house and the butcher’s shop and personally see the disgusting, rotten muscles, intestines, kidneys and other nasty parts of the animals which emit bad smell. This will induce vairagya (dispassion) in you and a strong disgust and hatred for meat-eating.

All slaughter-houses should be abolished, and the use of animal flesh as food should be absolutely given up. Flesh-eating is unnecessary, unnatural and unwholesome. The countless instances of reputed philosophers, authors, scholars, athletes, saints, Yogins, rishis who lived on vegetable diet conclusively prove that vegetarian diet produces supreme powers both of mind and body, and is highly conducive for divine contemplation and practice of Yoga. What is needed is a well-balanced diet, not a rich diet. A rich diet produces diseases of the liver, kidneys and pancreas.

People who are slaves to the flesh-eating habit cannot give up animal diet, because they have become confirmed and inveterate meat-eaters, and hence they try to justify their habit by various arguments and statistics. One cannot change their ways merely by argumentation and disputation. Ultimately, it is only the force of personal example that has a strong effect upon the people around you.

Excerpted from Bliss Divine by Sri Swami Sivananda; courtesy of www.dlshq.org.

 

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Asana: Steps to Personal Transformation

Asana: Steps to Personal Transformation

bob-buteraAn Interview with Robert Butera, PhD

Robert Butera studied at the Yoga Institute in Mumbai, India, where Yoga is viewed as a spiritual practice and a total lifestyle. A contributor to Integral Yoga Magazine and presenter at Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville, Dr. Butera explains how asana is part of the eight-fold Raja Yoga path and thus a step in a much broader journey. In this interview, he summarizes his ten-step approach to asana as a tool of transformation.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): How do you view asana?

Robert Butera (RB): My outlook on asanas is 100 percent guided by sutra 2.47 in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which tells us that Yoga poses are perfected when one completely relaxes and meditates on the infinite. There’s an irony in that. When you do a Yoga pose from a more spiritual perspective, you obtain more physical benefits. When you do an asana and you’re physically in the pose—in alignment and breathing—if your nervous system is agitated in any way, you will decrease the benefit you receive in that pose. If you learn how to connect to the infinite or have a broader perspective in the pose—where your ego is no longer the sole focus—then your nervous system steadies and you reach closer to a meditative state while having a physical experience. If you look at Olympic athletes who have mastered the 100-yard dash, they run as if there were no effort involved. For them to reach maximum speed, their nervous systems must be completely focused. The same is true for us as we try to get the full benefit from a Yoga posture.

IYM: How can one use asana for personal transformation?

RB: Let’s first define transformation in Yoga’s terms—not necessarily western psychology’s terms. Yoga traditionally was transmitted from the guru to the disciple, one-on-one. Group classes are more a modern trend as, classically, the majority of the learning happened one-on-one. So, transformation was based on the individual’s needs. If we apply that to individuals in modern society we would want to first focus on whatever areas in their lives are the most in need of balancing or improving. So, the transformational process in Yoga would first address that need, rather than having a set program that each student follows in the same manner. For some, the transformation will occur when they become aware of their bodies. They may be more developed psychologically or spiritually while out of touch with their physical bodies. Likewise, the breath could be a huge opener for certain individuals who have any type of blockage in their energy or prana. Another person may feel spiritually stuck in life and may find that deeper study of Yoga poses allows them to feel inspired.

IYM: How can we deepen our practice of asana?

RB: The first step is to understand where you are right now in your practice. For example, in the workshops I teach, I find that I can’t introduce any new ideas until the students first recognize their own bias in Yoga poses. What I mean by bias is the way in which they are doing the poses or focusing on the poses. The most common bias is to be obsessed with physical alignment and to not think of anything but where to place your body—the underlying belief is that a perfect body position leads to enlightenment.

Another example of bias relates to a person who begins to get in touch with his or her emotional body and tends to feel the majority of the poses through the heart. That person then starts to alter the alignment so the heart opens in poses where it isn’t supposed to. We superimpose our bias on what we think the Yoga pose should be, as opposed to going into the asana with an open mind and trying to figure out what the asana, in its purity, wants to be. If you can understand your bias, you can decide if working on your heart, breathing, relaxation or alignment is the appropriate thing that opens you up to higher consciousness. Over time, this will continue to evolve as things change in your life. That process seems to deepen people’s asana practice, because we often get into patterns or ruts with our practice over time.

IYM: Would you give an overview of the ten-step process you delineate in your book, The Pure Heart of Yoga?

RB: Yes, I give ten basic steps on which to focus in order to explore deeper states of consciousness while doing the asanas. Step one is intention (sankalpa). When you set an intention, it immediately connects your mind and body to the practice in one seamless unit. Personalizing your intention empowers your practice and your life. Step two is attitude (bhava). By cultivating an awareness of your attitude, you connect with the nonphysical essence of asana practice; you learn to create a harmony of mind, body and spirit through your attitude. Step three is posture, (asana) which addresses the physical alignment of the asana and the understanding that the body is an essential part of spiritual experience.

Step four is breathing (pranayama), which focuses on the breath as a bridge to divine consciousness. Step five is archetypes (purvaja). This step connects the asanas to nature and understanding the story behind each asana. Step six is energy centers (chakras). Having an understanding of our energetic anatomy can help us move beyond the physical asana so we connect to a higher reality. Step seven is concentration or (dharana), in which we minimize distractions to enhance concentration to go beyond ego into a pure experience in asana. Step eight includes the locks (bandhas) and seals (mudras) that help us to connect to subtle energy and manage the energetic body. Step nine addresses the psychological blocks (kleshas) that are the obstacles or hindrances to one’s practice. Step ten is emotional transformation (bhavana) which is a process of awareness, acceptance and transformation of negative or limiting emotions.

IYM: How does one work with the steps?

RB: I recommend working through them, one by one. It is not a timed, set program; the steps provide a template that grows with you over time. Certain steps become more relevant than others at different times in your life. Each step, if it’s appropriate for the student, has the effect of connecting them to the infinite. You can focus on alignment, if that’s the appropriate thing for you, and have a profound experience, but that usually lasts only for the first phase of a person’s Yoga journey.

I’ll give a few examples of how we work with the steps. Let’s consider step two, bhavana, the attitude of each posture. The root of the word posture is attitude. A haughty posture expresses an attitude of aloofness. A forward bend expresses an attitude such as surrender or letting go. When you explore the nuances of the poses, if you are able to understand what attitude is gifted to you while performing the asanas, you may discover new insights.

To work with step five, purvaja, we focus on the archetype of the pose. Yogis studied nature in order to discover the archetype or wisdom of each aspect of nature such as animals’ structures. That’s why asanas have names such as cobra, peacock, fish pose and so on. Human beings have the ability to mimic or in yogic terms, “become one with” these various qualities found throughout nature: the mountain, the tree pose, sun salutation—therefore you can have a similar experience described by the attitudes. For example, the attitude of the lion pose is courage. When you use the archetypal aspect, you are focusing in a more prayerful, visual way. You use a visualization, so it’s a more visceral feeling, where the attitudes are more intellectual. It’s interesting to study the archetypes and how this plays out in our personalities and lives.

IYM: Step ten is emotional transformation. Is there a psychological dimension to asana?

RB: Inherent in all Yoga practices, and yes I mean all, there is an implicit psychological dimension. Often, westerners compartmentalize life and they only see the physical aspect of Yoga poses, the psychological aspect of relationships and the spiritual dimension in terms of meditation. In Yoga, there is the mind-body-spirit connection in every aspect of the practice. One way of working psychologically when doing asanas is to explore areas of physical tension. For example, Mr. Smith does asanas to alleviate his neck tension from his long daily commute to work. However, as he studies Yoga further, he realizes that the way he holds the steering wheel is the same way he sits in meetings. He’s very opinionated and he’s learned to keep his mouth shut in meetings, but bottles up tension in his neck. His discovery must go into why he has this challenge in the first place. As he gains insights and opens his mind over time, through his Yoga practice and mindful approach to living, he’s able to release the neck tension. So, the process of transformation requires effort on all levels of oneself.

IYM: How do you see asana practice evolving in our culture?

RB: There’s a lot of confusion in the West about what constitutes Yoga practice. This is unavoidable when someone learns Yoga in a fitness club environment where there isn’t a strong sense present of the Yoga tradition. Then, once students go deeper into the tradition, they may find comfort in a specific Yoga style and then a much stronger block surfaces: when someone becomes a little too attached to their approach. It really doesn’t matter what style of Yoga we practice. We just need to figure out what suits our physical constitution and preferences. Ultimately, the right way to do Yoga is to use the practice to expand and heal ourselves so we may connect with the infinite.

 

Robert Butera, PhD, has studied meditation and Yoga since 1984. He is the founder/director of The YogaLife Institute and publisher of Yoga Living magazine. Dr. Butera studied with Dr. Jayadeva Yogendra at The Yoga Institute of Bombay and later obtained his PhD in Yoga Philosophy at The California Institute of Integral Studies and a Masters of Divinity from The Earlham School of Religion. With over 25 years of meditation and yoga experience, he has worked with teachers and students throughout Japan, Taiwan, India and the United States. He is the author of The Pure Heart of Yoga.

~Integral Yoga Magazine, Summer 2010

Yoga for Veterans

Yoga for Veterans

Anu BhagwatiAccording to Newsweek (April 27, 2009), “Some 8 million Americans have the disorder [PTSD] in a given year and the military is at even greater risk.” Now, Integral Yoga teacher Anuradha Bhagwati, a former Marine Captain, is teaching Yoga to veterans. In this interview, she discusses her journey from a depressed and angry vet to a healer.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): How did you first get introduced to Yoga?

Anuradha Bhagwati (AB): I was a Marine officer on active duty for five years. In my second year, I was on leave for two weeks and decided to go to the Sivananda Yoga Ranch because I wanted to do something relaxing. That was my first introduction to Yoga, and I loved it. It was an odd situation, as I was completely militarized. Everyone there was tickled that I was even setting foot inside a Yoga place. They talked about vegetarian diet and, even though I’m East Indian, I explained that we don’t do vegetarian in the Marines. I needed to sit and to quiet down but it wasn’t the time in my life to really relax, but it was a good hint of what Yoga was all about.

Toward the end of my fifth year, things got really bad. An officer was sexually harassing women in my unit. I filed an investigation outside the chain of command—as those in command were trying to sweep it under the rug. My command threatened me, and I was under more stress than ever before. There was a local Yoga place nearby that became my refuge from the sexual trauma whirlwind happening on base. A few years later, when I took Teacher Training, I heard about people who can’t sit still because of so much stress in their body. I couldn’t do more than a minute of savasana or my body would begin to break down. The women who owned that studio helped save my life.

IYM: Is that when you decided to leave the Marines?

AB: I was very angry and disappointed with the system. The people who had conducted the investigation supported our claim and made certain recommendations. Those recommendations were ignored and the perpetrator was even promoted. They gave him command of a unit with a lot of 18 year-old female Marines. So, I got out and I immediately went to graduate school. Soon after, I began falling apart, so I sought counseling, moved back home—until I realized I wanted to stop being angry and just wanted to do something good for myself again. I decided to pursue Yoga again.

IYM: Did that lead to Teacher Training?

AB: I found the Integral Yoga Institute in New York in 2008, while I was undergoing Military Sexual Trauma (MST) counseling. I got really tired of being offered little white pills for my pain and feeling like I had no control over my life. I wanted to immerse myself in something healthy. I had been through hell for three years. I wanted to do Yoga Teacher Training and took it in Mexico with Swami Ramananda. Finding this program was an amazing, life-changing experience.

Swami Ramananda saved my life at that point. Layers were coming off, left and right. I had a lot of injuries—physical and emotional—from my time in the Marines, so I was dealing with a lot of pent up pain, frustration and anger. Teacher Training was a struggle for me. The teachers would say, “You can just sit and breathe,” and I’d get angry because I was a Marine and was used to always having to step up. I came to see that pushing through everything wasn’t working for me. While others were doing handstands, I was learning to stop fighting everything all the time and to begin to let go.

IYM: Had you already decided you wanted to teach Yoga for veterans?

AB: I didn’t really think of helping vets. I didn’t really want to. It was pretty traumatic being in the Marines and to never be on equal footing with men (just six percent of us are female) and everything that is part of the daily grind of being a female officer. That, along with the investigation that I had initiated, led to my being treated and punished as if I were the enemy. So, I wasn’t feeling particularly charitable toward the military or wanting to serve this population.

However, when I decided to become a Yoga teacher, a lot changed. I learned that I did not have to be a victim to my thoughts and emotions. I saw that, by meditating and regulating my breathing, I could actually calm down and even feel better about things. Having gone through Teacher Training, a lot of counseling and speaking about veterans’ issues at forums, my anger started disappearing. At Teacher Training, I was able to forgive the people involved in the investigation and I released a lot of that pain. I started seeing people—even those who hadn’t done the right thing—as victims of the system and the national culture that makes men do things to prove they are men. I started forgiving people, left and right.

IYM: How did Yoga for Vets NYC come about?

AB: I started teaching at the IYI as much as I could. After a while, I realized that I didn’t want to focus my service on the general population. I had taught Yoga to a Marines in my last unit. I had been teaching close combat techniques and I loved teaching and I was in a good position to share Yoga with broken people. I was teaching people at IYI with HIV and that was more what I wanted to do. People with life-threatening illness are at a point where they really embrace life. I wanted to help this population and the vets too and I wanted to further let go of the fear and anger.

Yoga for Vets NYC started in July 2008 as a service designed specifically for veterans dealing with injuries or trauma, but every veteran is welcome, regardless of age, era or experience. It’s a free weekly class and eventually I’d like to make it a daily class. Classes are small enough to give attention to individual students who may be dealing with specific injuries, challenges or disabilities. No prior experience with Yoga is necessary. Each class includes simple instructions in four key elements of Yoga: breathing techniques, meditation, deep relaxation and poses that are therapeutic or invigorating.

IYM: What adaptations did you make for a class geared to veterans?

AB: It’s beginning to intermediate hatha, with a lot of variations for those not as agile and therapeutic Yoga for those not so able. I learned therapeutic Yoga with Cheri Clampett and Arturo Peal at the IYI. This is an approach that uses bolsters, blankets and other props to place just about anyone, including wounded and older people, in regular Yoga poses so that they can experience the health benefits of those poses. We do a lot of pranayama and meditation in the beginning of the class so we are sure to get it in.

In this class, it’s okay to rest and relax, or to just flat out not do a technique or pose that doesn’t work for you. I think that anyone who has been through the military is an expert at sucking up pain and functioning well under extreme stress. Many vets have already pushed their physical and mental limits beyond imagination. I try to make the class a place where they don’t have to do that anymore. They already know how to sweat. I think it’s more challenging for most of us to calm down, and let things go. The therapeutic Yoga helps them relax. Lots of vets say that the therapeutic Yoga is their favorite part of class, because it is so relaxing, and they don’t have to think about anything while they’re doing it.

IYM: What types of challenges have you faced teaching veterans Yoga?

AB: It was a difficult process to convince extremely macho people that Yoga is good for them. But, many vets are also extremely fed up with the VA system and with what is being offered in the way of traditional care. They are tired of popping pills and they have tried everything else, so they are ready to try Yoga. When the really tough guys—with ego and swagger and something to prove—see that that doesn’t impress me and that it’s a safe environment, by end of class they are like Jello. All that toughness has evaporated and they are calm and happy. It’s amazing. Hopefully, they will begin to realize that their humanity is so much more than how much they can lift and what they can bench press. One of the reasons I wasn’t as comfortable doing Yoga in the Marines, is that it forces you to let go of the characteristics that make us lethal soldiers. It’s easier to do Yoga now that I am a veteran.

IYM: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

AB: I love teaching this class. In doing good for this community, it helps me to heal and be happy. I hope that other Yoga teachers start programs for vets at their studios. It is challenging to find vets open enough to come, but I want to encourage others to offer these classes and to offer them for free, because a lot of vets can’t afford the normal cost of a Yoga class. Any Yoga teacher who is interested or wants some moral support may contact me through the website.

Anuradha K. Bhagwati was a Captain in the Marines. She earned a BA in English from Yale University and a Masters of Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. She is the founder of Yoga for Vets, NYC. She is also a writer and is currently working on a novel about the psychology of violence. She is the Executive Director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN). For more information, please visit: www.yogaforvetsnyc.org and www.servicewomen.org.

 

 

From: Integral Yoga Magazine Summer 2009 issue