Personal Transformation

The Bhagavad Gita exemplifies one of these powerful stories through which we can explore certain themes, common to many yoga traditions and texts,

in their applications to yoga therapy. The Bhagavad Gita illustrates a yogic path of transformation.

The Bhagavad Gita is part of a larger story called the Mahabharata, an epic that arose from the oral tradition. The Mahabharata is a prime example of a fluid narrative that evolved as stories, including the Bhagavad Gita itself, were added? Both works offer a multitude of anecdotes on the situations that inevitably arise on the journey through life and through which practitioners may consider yoga’s teachings.

The Mahabharata tells the story of a group of brothers, the Pandavas. Each brother represents essential parts of ourselves, including the ways in which we respond and orient to circumstances and events. We must recognize and understand each of these aspects of ourselves to effectively work with the vast array of body, mind, and environmental stimuli that arise throughout life. Central to these teachings is the idea that each experience may lead to or perpetuate an experience of suffering; alternatively, as we learn to find other ways to relate to these events we can find a greater sense of peace, contentment, and ultimately well-being in response to life.

Yudhisthira, the Pandava brother who is the son of Dharma, often plays the part of wisdom or the discerning mind. Bhima, the son of Vayu, the wind, represents will and strength. Arjuna is the Bhagavad Gita’s main character and the archetypal warrior—the disciplined part of ourselves that demonstrates the utmost integrity in the face of any obstacle. As circumstances arise throughout the Mahabharata, we can see the response of each character and the strengths and weaknesses of their approaches to life. Interestingly, earlier sections of the text highlight the approach of Bhima, of strength and will; the central portion, including the Bhagavad Gita, concerns Arjuna, or discipline; and finally we turn to Yudhisthira, or dharma. Many will recognize the truth of experience in a path from the will with which we often approach life in our younger years to a more disciplined approach and ultimately one of greater wisdom and discernment as we mature.

The Bhagavad Gita’s action takes place right before the central battle of the Mahabharata. This battle represents those moments in our lives when we face the turmoil of change and transformation and must work with whatever obstacles arise. When we arrive at these moments, our old ways and habits have taken us as far as they can; to change our relationship to suffering, we must confront whatever is limiting our progress. Arjuna represents our discipline to approach transformation with strength and wisdom.

The Bhagavad Gita begins with the scene of battle being described to a blind king, Dhritarastra. Leading up to this conflict, the king had many opportunities to see the truth, speak up, and take action that could have prevented the suffering that arose in the story of the Mahabharata. Instead, he was blinded to the truth and unable to discern the right actions to take, his vision clouded by emotions and beliefs he was unable to face. Dhritarastra plays the part of ourselves that has been blinded to understanding of what must be done to alleviate suffering or bring about peace. He comes to the battle from this clouded place, able to watch what happens only through another, who helps him “see” clearly. This partnership between the king and his advisor reminds us that when we bring ourselves to battle to confront a truth, we must often rely on others for support. In times of challenge, those we trust may support us by offering clear sight along our path.

This teaching is relevant today as we learn the importance, to health, of social relationships and connection. Historically, the biomedical explanatory model has underemphasized the social aspect of health, although its importance is gaining recognition. Chapters 6 and 7 of this book elaborate on the connection between this social dimension and health and well-being in terms of both physiological and psychological mechanisms and implications for yoga therapy. From the yogic perspective, the concept of connection is essential to the alleviation of suffering.

As the moment of battle arises, Arjuna comes to the middle of the field to look at both sides. He regards the “wrongdoers” who have acted in ways full of jealousy, arrogance, and greed—against everything that is “right.” In them, Arjuna sees his teachers, uncles, cousins, and friends. He realizes he will have to fight those who have supported and taught him, those he has loved and been loved by. At the crossroads of transformation, we will encounter aspects of ourselves that have served us but that we now have to let go. Ways of thinking, beliefs we have held, and ways of understanding ourselves and the world that have kept us safe will shift in this process of change. In the same way that Arjuna realizes he will have to fight these people who have brought him so much, transformation brings the realization that our old ways of being may need to fall away to allow space for change. The beliefs that strengthened us at one time may be the very ones limiting us. Our work to alleviate suffering—or to change our relationship to its nature—may entail a release of the identity to which we cling.

When Arjuna realizes that this process of change includes parting ways with and “killing” friends, family, and teachers, he falters. He turns to Krishna, who represents the highest expression of teacher and spirit within, and laments:

My limbs sink, my mouth is parched, my body trembles.. .1 cannot stand still, my mind reels.. .1 do not want to kill them even if I am killed.. .The greed that distorts their reason blinds them to the sin they commit in ruining the family, blinds them to the crime of betraying friends.

(Bhagavad Gita, 1.29—1.38)“

Arjuna collapses in the middle of the battlefield, unable to discern next steps or even to distinguish right from wrong. Illustrating the difficulty in facing our safely established habits, this moment represents a decision point in the process of letting go patterns that perpetuate suffering and of choosing another way of being in relationship to life—so that we experience well-being and alleviate our suffering.

Each opportunity for change and growth brings corresponding obstacles in the form of "safe,” perhaps long-held, patterns that challenge transformation. We must be ready to shift those beliefs if we are to move toward truth, meaning, and well-being. As these old patterns and beliefs fall away, we may become overwhelmed by the enormity of what may feel like insurmountable obstacles to change. These decision—and action—points are powerful opportunities to experience the truth of who we are without our fears.

The teachings of yoga are meant to assist us in this transformation. This wisdom tradition provides a map with which to traverse the path toward realization and a means by which we can overcome obstacles to change our experience of suffering.

The overwhelming uncertainty that can cloud our judgment sets the stage in the beginning verses of the Bhagavad Gita. The rest of the text is a discussion between Arjuna and Krishna about the former’s inner conflict. Throughout the Mahabharata, Krishna is nearly everyone’s trusted advisor, the archetypal teacher within. Arjuna asks this teacher, this embodied form of spirit, the questions that arise as he wrestles with what to do. Krishna offers guidance to help Arjuna align with his path and right action.

The Bhagavad Gita’s battle is the moment when we have worked diligently and with integrity but meet an obstacle that requires us to relinquish aspects of ourselves—parts with which we may identify deeply yet hold us back.

Practice 1.1 Meditation: Standing at a Crossroads

Take a few breaths and center your attention into your body. Recall a time when you experienced an obstacle and were unclear as to the truth or the direction to take. Notice how it felt to be at this crossroads.

Allow the full experience of that moment to arise. How does it feel in your body to be at this decision point? Where in your body do you notice this obstacle, this questioning of which direction to go? What is the quality of sensation? Heavy/light, bright/dark, pin-pointed/diffuse? How do you notice in your body the experience of not being able to see clearly which direction to take? What thoughts, beliefs, and emotions emerge?

What were your blindnesses at this crossroads? Were there practices that supported you in this or similar past situations when you experienced obstacles? How did you come to a decision and take action? How did that feel in your body? What thoughts, emotions, and beliefs supported that decision?

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