June 21, 2023-Jersey City, NJ—Happy International Yoga Day! Happy Summer Solstice, too! It’s been nine years since the UN accepted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposal to declare the first International Yoga Day in 2014. Since then, annual Yoga Day themes have been general and fairly obvious (Yoga for humanity; Yoga with family and friends) which is understandable. Yoga has a lot going for it, hence a lot to say. Eight limbs, after all! And that’s just Ashtanga.
This year, they went in a tangibly different direction with the selection of a Sanskrit verse from the Maha Upanishad, one of the yoga philosophic scriptures. And oh, my, what a verse it is.
Keep in mind Sanskrit is no longer commonly spoken. Chanted, sung, absolutely; called out in yoga classes all day and night round the world, sure, you bet: but not on the tip of the tongue of every yoga teacher trainee, even. And there are so many of them!
Makes me wonder if Mr. Modi chose this verse, or was it by committee, in conjunction with the UN, or by some poor harried functionary in a cubicle or sat at an open plan raft of fools (what exactly is the seating deal in offices now?). Well, I would guess, ’twas quite specifically chosen for more than one reason. Marketing, they like to cram it all in, bombard your brain with loud and subtle signs. Once I checked it out, though, it proved to be a run of the mill case of cherry-picking info and then square pegging it into a round hole. Sigh.
So, is it true? Is the Earth family? Or, as the VI-72-73 verses claim. “For those who live magnanimously the entire world constitutes but a family. Resort to the status free from all considerations of empirical life, beyond old age and death, in which all mental constructions are extinguished and where no attachment finds lodgement.”*
Sadly, no country can claim to treat the planet as a beloved family member in our current age. So let’s go with literal meanings. Sounds like yoga can unite us as citizens of the world, wellness-driven cosmopolites. Sounds good. Sounds like world peace and yoga. I’m in.
Except for the next verse, which clues one in to the state that must be attained before the magnanimous -those generous and forgiving types, who are especially so when it comes to competitors and those with less power, status, authority, knowledge or means -can roam the world connecting with family.
This “status free from all considerations of empirical life, beyond old age and death, in which all mental constructions are extinguished and where no attachment finds lodgement,” is called renunciation. No more desire, for anything, anyone or anyplace, ever again. Enlightenment during one’s lifetime, basically. The person is now a jivanmukti, a living saint, a sage, a bodhisattva. The five sections and the numerous verses preceding this family oriented one depict in exact detail what one needs to give up (everything!) in order to reach this state. As you can imagine, it’s quite rare, particularly theses days, and not something most people would want to accomplish while living.
One of the main things one is advised to renounce is women. Not surprising, really, as many ancient philosophic dialogues were between men, though there were indeed female yogic sages and philosophers, and the Maha Upanishad is no different in this regard. Celibacy, aka bramacharya, is often part of a spiritual journey. Not everyone’s, but renunciates for sure give up the nookie. And a whole lot else. Forevah!
Some of the unfortunate references to women in III-39-48:
“What is auspicious about a woman - a puppet of flesh - . . . Women are the flame of sin. . .they burn men like grass . . . Women are the traps to catch the birds - men, . . .the lump of bait, the string of wickedness to men who are the fish in the pond of birth (life) . . . I will have none of this woman who is the basket of all defects. . .the chain of misery. . . Giving up women means giving up the world (renunciation, folks); by this one shall be happy.”
I suppose I’d be more well disposed to use of this verse for Yoga Day if it weren’t quoted so heavily out of context, and didn’t come from such an advanced scripture that trashes women. Not the kind of thing to warm people up to yoga. Naturally, they are counting on no one looking too deeply, and even if one did, these are big concepts, translations vary, and really, the attention span of the average human is abysmally low these days. Still, quite a shame to get it wrong, especially something as valuable as the Upanishads, and today of all days.
Litha, aka the summer solstice, is a balance point in the wheel of the year, and directly opposite Yule, the winter solstice on December 21. Yoga, I have learned these last 30-something years, creates balance in the body, mind and spirit. Litha is also a time to cultivate the stillness in yin qualities to counteract all the dynamic yang energy associated with spring and early summer. We’ve reached peak light in terms of the Sun; from today, it get incrementally darker. Time to start taking it down a notch.
Just what is an appropriate Sanskrit verse to share with the world on International Yoga Day 2023? The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a seminal work in the yoga philosophic canon, offers plenty of serene fodder. Sutra means thread, and these short, pithy, instructions that describe training the mind with yogic practices compose four books. There is MUCH to be said about the sutras and Patanjali, but Book II, verse 46 tells us,
The connection to the earth should be steady and joyful.
Asana means pose, seat, posture, it connects us to the Earth, our home, our family, if you like. Sthira, steadiness, and sukham, ease, are the qualities we cultivate as we breathe long, slow, deep, full breaths in each pose.
What you may need to do to be steady and easy may involve modifications for your body, specific to you alone, maybe it’s a prop, or two. Doesn’t matter. What does is how comfortable are you? And if you’re not, what could you do to make yourself a bit more so? And if you’re still not, can you breath and enjoy it anyway? That’s advanced, though. That’s some renunciate shiz, right there, so watch out! Yoga is quite seductive.
What would you have chosen for a Yoga Day theme? Lemme know.
Hope you had a great Yoga Day and will enjoy the rest of the summer!