By Ed Staskus
The Warrior Pose (Virabhadrasana), of which there are three variations, is an essential feature of many exercise sequences at yoga studios. The warrior pose of soldiers in combat is as varied as the difference between Roman legionnaires and drone operators.
The name of the yoga pose comes from Virabhandra, a hero in Indian mythology who carried a thousand cudgels 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.
The warrior pose in the U. S. Army is usually a floor pose, practiced on the stomach, on one knee, or in a crouch. Instead of reaching through the arms with empty hands, the military variation keeps the arms close to the body and a strong grip on ones M4A1 carbine.
Yoga is traditionally a pathway toward enlightenment. “If your practice is moving you away from enlightenment, then you are not practicing yoga,” says Ganesh Das of Jivamukti Yoga. Those on the path commonly practice with that intention, not with the intention of setting gun sights on the whites of someone’s eyes.
But, some in the brave new world of 21st century yoga argue that it can and should be more than it has been, arguing that its energy should be devoted towards myriad forms of improvement, competing against one another to be the best in the class, even on the battlefield.
Although it is debatable whether yoga and conflict are compatible, it has recently been introduced to the American armed forces, described as “a powerful supplement to combat readiness training, making soldiers better prepared for challenges they’ll face in combat” in an article titled The US Army Strikes the Warrior Pose. Warriors at Ease, a Maryland-based company, is one of the first officially-recognized “yoga defense contractors”.
However, not everyone in the military agrees that today’s redefined yoga is appropriate for training troops. They contend that it coddles rather than toughens them. “People have said you’re babying them,” says Mark Hertling, Deputy Commanding General for Initial Military Training. “You’ve got to drive them hard, and work them until it hurts.”
While it is the questionable whether yoga is appropriate training for the rigors of war, it is clear that the chain of command has not come to grips with some forms of yoga exercise. As a means of fitness training for soldiers it may exceed traditional push-ups and 2-mile marches, as attested by a 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 military might is to preserve security and provide defense, and to overcome perils to that security. The United States accomplishes this with a defense budget, in the fiscal year 2012, of more than $900 billion. It is almost $300 billion more than the next fourteen countries, including China and Russia, in the top fifteen for defense spending, combined.
Even setting aside the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military spending has more than doubled since 2001. Defense accounts for approximately 20 percent of the entire federal budget, roughly the same as Social Security, and outstripping spending on transportation, education, and science, combined.
Americans spend almost $3000.00 per person on defense annually.
In the United States $6 billion a year is spent on yoga, primarily on hatha practices. Americans spend less than $19.00 per person on yoga annually.
The purpose of yoga is to unite the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of life. “It is to cultivate awareness, self-regulation, and higher consciousness in the individual,” according to David Surrenda, CEO of Kripalu Center in Massachusetts. Its goal is to cultivate a higher nature, not relying on Smith & Wesson.
Whether Americans are safer paying nearly $3000.00 a year for their military readiness or $19.00 a year for their spiritual readiness is a moot point.
Going toe-to-toe with the Pentagon the often-barefoot practice of yoga is at a decided disadvantage. The Pentagon is the world’s largest defense building. The National Capitol could fit into any one of its five wedge-shaped sections. With more than 23,000 employees it is virtually a city.
Not even Bikram 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 3 million enlisted and reserve. But, the pool the Pentagon draws on is far larger than yoga’s mailing list. There are more than 22 million veterans in the United States, as well as 120,000,000 men and women classified as being fit for service.
Many people come to yoga for sun salutations and vinyasa. They fill out a waiver at a studio, stretch and sweat for an hour, and if all goes well come back the next day. Some weave it into the fabric of their lives, internalizing the practice and living by its eight-fold path as a way of achieving a meaningful existence.
In the armed forces all inductees must take the Oath of Enlistment, in which they “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 in front of the stars and stripes, not in front of God.
If it came to a fight, yoga would be badly out-gunned by the Pentagon, which can muster thousands of ships, planes, and M1A2 Abrams tanks, the most electronically-sophisticated, and heavily-armored battle tank ever built anywhere in the world. 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 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 WW2 has largely been a patchwork of compromised victories.
Francis Beer, a political scientist at the University of Colorado, has estimated that more than 14,000 wars have taken place between 3500 BC and the late 20th century, resulting in more than 3.5 billion deaths. By his measure there have only been 300 years of relative peace in that 5500-year span.
Killing one man is a capital crime. Killing ten men is mass murder. Killing one hundred men is slaughter, beyond the pale of crime. But, killing a thousand men is called war and trumpeted as a triumph. Capital crimes are condemned while wars make for medals and parades.
“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. 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 their wars.
The Roman Empire, the most ruthless in history, fought every one of its wars under the rubric of defense. The North fought the Civil War to preserve the American Union while the South fought to preserve its 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 succeeded,” says 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.
“The state jealously guards the right to make war because this prerogative is a source of power,“ writes Mark Kurlansky in Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea.
People practice yoga for many reasons, among them physical health, mind-body unity, and what can be described as connecting to the whole. Practiced regularly 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 CEO of Kripalu Center. “We experience this resonance as a spiritual experience.”
Yoga boot camps are far different than 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 others. That is why today’s all-volunteer U. S. Army is largely made up of the disadvantaged and unemployed.
In Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command on Future War, the chief U. S. Army combat historian of WW2, Samuel Marshall, revealed that only one in four combat soldiers ever fired their guns, 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 firepower, might not have the advantage it seems if its soldiers won’t fire their guns.
One reason yoga might have an advantage is that the practice develops balance and strength in both body and mind. It is only with those attributes that ahimsa can be successfully pursued.
“Nonviolence must never come from weakness but from strength,” writes Mark Kurlansky. “Only the strongest and most disciplined people can hope to achieve it.”
Ahimsa is a guiding principle of yoga practice. Although all spiritual practices abjure violence, unlike Christianity, Islam, and even Buddhism, yoga has never been co-opted by the state, its nonviolent pose twisted to serve power politics.
Christians since St. 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 declare jihad whenever they propose 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 WW2.
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 “Stormin’ Norman” Schwartzkopf, field commander of the Coalition Forces, declared, “God must have been on our side!”
What was on his side was a bevy 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 pose is that nonviolence is a first principle, renouncing war. The state’s pose is that force of arms is its prerogative. Yoga denies that peace can be achieved through violence. The state accepts war because it believes without arms and armies it would be impotent. The state proposes that war is the way peace is won.
“I just want you to know,” explained President Bush, “that when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace.”
But, violence does not resolve conflicts between people or their states. “Peace cannot be achieved through violence,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the first Americans to study Vedic texts. Violence almost always leads to more violence. 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.
“When you start to understand how karma works, you realize how you treat others determines how much suffering you experience,” says Sharron Gannon of Jivamukti Yoga.
The warrior pose battalions of yoga could conceivably be the most formidable foe the Pentagon has faced in a long time. Wars are ultimately fought to win hearts and minds. The hearts and minds of yogis may be stronger and more resilient than any weapon the Pentagon can wield.
If push came to shove between the Pentagon and yoga, the winning side would be the side with the prevailing point-of-view. The North Vietnamese did not prevail through force of arms in the 1960s and 1970s. The Pentagon would be battling an idea that like Gandhi’s idea for India’s independence struggle is almost impossible to defeat, so long as the idea sticks to its guns.
Yoga makes samadhi – union with the divine – not war. The Pentagon makes war, which leads to more war, and to the other definition of samadhi, which is a funerary monument. Yoga opens the heart. The Pentagon puts a bullet into it. “The more we sweat in peace the less we bleed in war,” says Vijaya Pandit of the U. N. Human Rights Commission.
The ultimate problem for the Pentagon is that it ignores the Bhagavad Gita, the most dangerous existing explication of yoga. If nothing else the Bhagavad Gita teaches one how to hold ones ground, which is what Warrior Pose is all about.
Although Navy Seals have pioneered practices like ‘Combat Yoga’, when the ka-booming starts the Seals Marines GI’s, sailors and airmen, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Fortress Pentagon might never know what hit them, as their world view goes up in mirage, which is, in the end, the seeing things as they really are, the ultimate goal of yoga practice.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus