By Ed Staskus
In 1120, soon after the First Crusade recaptured Jerusalem for Christendom, a new monastic order was created to support and protect caravans making pilgrimage to the Holy Places. But, unlike earlier monastic orders, the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, or Knights Templar, was different.
Christian monasticism had always been a devotional practice. The basic idea of the practice, even today, is withdrawal from the world. Christian monks lived ascetic, often cloistered lives, dedicated to worship. It is similar to Pratyahara, one of the forgotten limbs of yoga. Pratyahara literally means “gaining mastery over external influences.” It is grounded in the same kind of tradition.
The Knights Templar, however, was a military monastic order, among the most skilled fighting men of the Crusades. In 1177, at the Battle of Montgisard, fewer than 500 heavily-armored Knights Templar, backed by only a few thousand infantrymen, defeated the Muslim Sultan Saladin’s army of more than 26,000.
Although men of the cloth and masters of war may seem like strange bedfellows, they are not.
In the 13th century St. Thomas Aquinas, the scholastic philosopher, wrote, “A religious order can be fittingly established for the military life, for the defense of divine worship.” In the 16th century monks of the Shaolin Temple routinely battled Japanese pirates, who had been raiding their Chinese coastline for decades. Servants of God sometimes acted as shock troops during Europe’s Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Buddhist monks have lately joined the likes of Hindu nationalists, fundamentalist Christians, Muslim radicals, and ultra-Orthodox Jews in advancing their religious points-of-view at the end of a gun barrel.
Since they have all the answers, it is doubtful they have any faith, even though they insist otherwise, often at the boiling point. Faith is what implies there might be a mystery at the heart of things.
Yoga has long been perceived as being built on several core principles, among them non-violence. “The first yama – ahimsa or non-harming, which asks us to embrace non-violence at the level of speech, thought, and action – is truly the cornerstone of yoga as a way of life,” Rolf Gates wrote in his book Meditation From the Mat.
Both cornerstone and culture, it is a behavior essential to the yogic lifestyle. “Practicing ahimsa is a way of cultivating an attitude of kindness, gentleness, and forgiveness in all situations,” says Heather Church, an Adjunct Teaching Professional at Ohio University, where she teaches yoga and yogic philosophy.
But, in a country that possesses 50% percent of the guns on the planet, even though it accounts for only 5% of the world’s population, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and where tens of millions practice yoga of some kind or other, according to Yoga Journal, it was probably inevitable that guns and the practice would one day cross swords.
In the brave new world of today’s yoga some are taking an age-old tack on the issue of violence, eschewing self-restraint and ahimsa. They are taking an Old Testament approach, bumping the Buddha off the starting line. It’s an eye for an eye outlook.
“I’ll be damned if some religious extremist decides in his twisted head that he thinks he’ll clean the world by popping off some godless hippies and decides to walk in and spray some bullets into my studio with my students,” Cheryl Vincent wrote in an op-ed piece for Elephant Journal.
“You better believe I’ll be packing.”
The central maxim of the National Rifle Association, better known as the NRA, is, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.”
It’s High Noon showdown time. When good yogis pack pistols their accuracy is generally better than most, making them daunting adversaries. Writing in Women’s Self Defense Weekly, which offers advice such as “The Neck Grab and Throat Punch”, Laura Simonian pointed out that the best-kept secret about yoga is that “it helps your shooting.”
She added that it was “great” for mental strength, core strength, balance strength, breathing control strength, and self-discipline, all leading to an aim that is true. “I bet you didn’t know all those core conditioning boats, crows, and warriors were benefitting you in more ways than flexibility and mental well-being. Yoga can actually aid your shooting.”
Shooting guns takes focus and concentration. “Yoga’s Zen-like quality can be applied to shooting guns in a lot of ways,” says Deirdre Gailey, a yoga teacher and vegan chef in New York City. “I like to shoot guns.”
The rise of women’s gun culture is a 21st century phenomenon. Babes with bullets shot up almost 50% in the United States between 2001 and 2010, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, leading to pink pistols and purses with holster slots. Samuel Colt made all men equal in the 19th century. Now women are catching up.
Brandon Webb, the marksman who trained the writer Laura Simonian on bolt-action rifles, described her as a “natural born killer” and explained that he has “definitely witnessed firsthand the positive effects yoga has had on my own shooting.”
Laura Simonian trained with a Glock 34 handgun, too. Although its longer barrel results in a slightly slower draw time out of the holster, it is still used by some as a concealed weapon. No one should try messing with yoga girl Laura.
A 2013 Gallup Poll revealed that protection is the top reason Americans own guns, followed by hunting, sport and target shooting, and 2nd Amendment rights. Gun owners say that having a gun makes them feel safer. The NRA argues that if more law-abiding citizens had guns everyone would be safer from gun violence.
The NRA doesn’t say anything about more Americans having been killed in gun-related incidents in the past 50 years than in all the wars fought in all of American history.
“You see peace and tranquility in the country and I see the Blair Witch Project,” Texas novelist Ruth Pennebacker wrote in “Yoga and Guns”.
“You see cows and horses and I see lethal rattlesnakes ready to strike. You see friendly, down-to-earth farmers and homespun families and I see the two murderers from In Cold Blood. A gun. Shooting lessons. Sign up now. Before it’s too late.”
But, a study in the Southern Medical Journal in 2010 found that owning a gun is 12 times more likely to result in the death of a family member or guest than in the death of an intruder. It is the protection paradox. The risks of gun ownership overshadow the benefits. The more guns there are the more shootings there are. That is why in countries with few guns there are few shootings.
After Australia enacted sweeping gun control laws in 1998 mass shootings involving four-or-more people dropped to zero. In the United States mass shootings happen every day, literally. In 2016 there were 383.
For many people the joy of owning guns is entwined with the joy of hunting.
“Every shotgun and rifle in my family’s gun safe is brimming with stories,” wrote Babe Winkleman in The Sportsman’s Guide. “I wonder where those walnut tress grew [for my rifle stock]. Was there ever a deer shot from the very tree that grew the wood for my deer rifle?”
Although more and more people in the United States live in cities, hunting expanded 9% from 2006 through 2011. Some tramp through fields and woods because “doing things outdoors is healthy,” says Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Some hunt because it is a rite of passage, growing up in families that have always hunted, and passing their knowledge down. In “Buddhists With Guns” the writer Justin Whitaker, a Buddhist scholar, noted he and his sister, a yoga instructor, grew up in rural Montana and were introduced to guns early in life.
“I think I skipped the ‘you’ll shoot your eye out!’ bb-gun that many friends were getting and moved on to a pump-action single shot pellet-gun around the age of 8,” he said.
Others hunt to harvest their own food. In 2011 almost 14 million Americans went hunting, shooting squirrels, pheasants, turkey, and deer, among other wildlife. Old-school yoga skips hunting season. It eschews eating animals. Sri Pattabhi Jois, progenitor of Ashtanga Yoga, recommended not eating meat because “It will make you stiff.”
Most people who practice yoga today eat animals, but are sometimes sensitive about the issue. “When the rare occasion does rise for me to indulge in animal food, I do so with great respect and meditation on the sacrifice of the animal,” said Jerry Anathan of Yoga East in Cape Cod.
More than 150 billion animals a year are killed for food, both in slaughterhouses and forests. That is a great deal of killing. It may be what guns are made for, but whether that much suffering aligns with yogic values is an open question.
By 2010 shooting was enjoying a renaissance in the United States. 35 million Americans were participating in formal and informal sport and target shooting, surpassing all earlier estimates of the sport. “Firearms sales are way up, so it’s really no surprise that more people are enjoying the shooting sports than ever before,” said Steve Sanetti, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, based in Newtown, Connecticut.
“AR-style [semi-automatic assault-style, in other words] rifles are rugged, accurate, fun to shoot, and they’re here to stay,” he added.
Fun on the mat and fun on the firing range sometimes vibrate on the same plane.
“Shooting guns and taking yoga on the same day was the biggest ‘You got chocolate in my peanut butter!’ moment I’ve had so far in my life,” wrote Patton Oswalt in The New York Times. “I was one with my target, and my target was bliss. Namaste. Lock and load.”
Guns are the “new yoga” CBS News reported recently. However, instead of foam blocks and cloth straps, the new props of the new yoga include high-velocity metal projectiles.
Although it is hard to hear over the racket of gunfire, shooting a gun can be “just like yoga – meditative,” Caitlin Talbot recounted gun owners describing the gunfire around them in her article in Elephant Journal. The same skill sets often apply. Slow yourself down. Be in the now.
In the same way that consciously relaxing your body, focusing your thoughts and gaze, and breathing evenly are the basic tools of meditation, they are the basic tools of shooting, too. When shooting a gun the fewer muscles used the steadier the shooter’s position will be. Focusing on the task at hand puts the shooter in the zone, making their efforts effortless. Lastly, shooters use breathing cues, relaxing on each expired breath, as they squeeze the trigger.
It’s just like yoga, except you don’t want to be on the wrong end of a gun. It’s not like being on a yoga mat, where any end of the mat is the right end. At least, until recently, when Mattthew Remski observed in “Should Yogis Want Their Guns Back” that his yoga mat “sometimes smells like gunpowder” and that “authentic peace seems to thrive on the juice of authentic violence”.
Many gun enthusiasts, firearms industry spokesmen, and the NRA cite the 2nd Amendment as justification for the right everyone has to keep and bear arms. Owning guns is framed as a fundamental human right, although they seem to never defend the merits of gun ownership without referring to the amendment, as though guns in and of themselves are only signifiers, not actual things.
The hue and cry is made despite the wording of the amendment itself. “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” What Thomas Jefferson seems to have meant was that the right to possess firearms exists in relation to the militia, not in relation to teenagers possessing Glock 10mm and Sig-Sauer 9mm handguns, Bushmaster semi-automatic rifles, and Izhmash 12-gauge shotguns, and then using them to shoot and kill grade school children and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut.
Until this century all federal courts, liberal and conservative alike, agreed that the 2nd Amendment does not confer gun rights on individuals. However, in 2010 the Supreme Court ruled otherwise in a 5 – 4 decision, re-affirming a fundamental right to bear arms. Now that many of the arguments about who can have a gun – there are no federal laws requiring a license to own a gun – have been settled, the Supreme Court might in the next few years try resolving the question of who can or can’t possess a rocket launcher.
Gun aficionados from Rush Limbaugh to Arnold Schwarzenegger applauded. “I have a love interest in every one of my films – a gun,” said the Terminator.
Guns can be testy lovers, however. “The recoil from a .357 Magnum can really do a number on your chakras,” said one of the shooting yogis in “Higher Caliber, Higher Mindedness: The Story of YoGun”, an award-winning short film from SofaCouch MovieFilms.
As yoga has matured in the United States in the new millennium, it has begun to embrace the notion of gun ownership. “Yoga is starting to become more associated with the cultural right, used to train the military and promote Ayn Rand,” said Carol Horton, a former political science professor and certified Forrest Yoga teacher.
“Until all governments disarm, the people have a right to bear arms,” argues Avananda, a ‘philosopher yogi’ and registered Yoga Alliance teacher.
The argument is the same as the photo-shopped shortened 2nd Amendment on the front of NRA headquarters. ”The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Like the NRA, many prefer the amended fake version of the amendment to the real amendment.
Michelle Comeaux Howard, a yoga teacher and mother of two in Mission Viejo, California, has argued that only by being armed can we successfully defend ourselves from being victimized. “I believe strongly in our Second Amendment rights because there will always be crime and I want to exercise the right to protect myself and my children in the event we were to become victims of a home invasion or if someone ever attacked us in public.”
She believes all “law-abiding” citizens, including her, should be allowed to legally carry a concealed weapon. Non-violence is one of yoga’s self-restraints, but it is being pushed out the door at the same time as gun control is coming to mean being able to hit your target.
But, maybe old-school peace-and-love your neighbor yogis have it all wrong about ahimsa, and what is really old-school about the practice are yogis tot’n the monkey. Back in the day they apparently believed you could get more with a kind thought and a gun than with just a kind thought.
“From the fifteenth century until the early decades of the nineteenth century, highly organized bands of militarized yogins controlled trade routes across Northern India,” wrote Mark Singleton in Yoga Body.
Yoga exercise, or hatha yoga, was a kind of boot camp or military training, keeping them in trim for the wear and tear of guerilla warfare. As Birgette Gorm Hansen pointed out in “Wild Yogis”, a recent article in Rebelle Society, yoga back then “was a bad ass practice.”
After putting down the infamous 1857 Mutiny, the British colonial government of India began to systematically disarm the sub-continent’s population, and in 1878 introduced the Indian Arms Act, forbidding almost all Indians from possessing firearms of any kind. Although not specifically targeting yogis, it effectively ended the marauding of the armed hatha gangs, who threatened both princely states and British economic interests.
They were forced to lay down their guns and turn to yogic showmanship as a livelihood, in the meantime keeping yoga exercise alive into the 20th century. In the 1920s and 30s Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga, took up the mantle and revived the practice, crafting it to become the booming posture workout it is today.
Today, modern yoga studios preach breath and exercise to keep us fit and healthy, sprinkling in concepts like Dharana and Dhyana to keep a few of the other limbs of yoga alive. But, back in the day, yogis kept the peace by going heavy.
Nobody goes heavier than the Pentagon. These days the military is hiring ‘Yoga Defense Contractors’ to deal with changes in basic training, combat readiness, and residual issues like PTSD.
Maybe the yogis packing pistols straight-up today are just getting back to the roots of yoga.
After all, even the Dalai Lama, arguably one of the most peaceable men on the planet, when asked by a schoolchild at the Educating Heart Summit in Oregon what he would do if someone came to his school with a gun, replied without hesitation, ”If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun.”
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus