• Two Views of Life: Navajo and Yoga Culture, THE GALLUP JOURNEY JANUARY 2017

    Posted in Articles by Eric Shaw

    Read it here, or on pages 36-7 of the January, 2017  Gallup Journey

    I lived in Gallup, New Mexico from 1994 to 1998, teaching special education at the old Juan de Onate Elementary School up on the hill above town, and way out at Gallup High. 

    Jason Arsenault, the editor of the Gallup Journey, became my best friend then, and  after leaving Gallup in 1998, I got waaay into yoga, studying it with gurus, though constant practice and in a university program.

    When I lived here, I offered a course at UNM, Gallup, called Christ, Krishna and Hero Twins.

    It never ran!  I didn’t get enough enrollment.  But the syllabus I wrote led pointed to similarities among Christian, Hindu and Dine ways of life.

    This article is about Yoga!  But it also aims to look overlaps between Navajo and Hindu culture.  I figured the only way to make yoga history relevant for Gallup Journey readers would be draw some parallels between the way of yoga and the way of the Navajos .

    There are tons of similarity between the culture of India—which is the birthground of yoga—and the culture of the Dine.

    Both have elaborate creation myths populated with heaps of good and bad spirits, heroes, and gods. 

    The Navajos orient their sacred land between four sacred mountains, and the subcontinent of India is ringed by four points, too—it is shaped like an inverted diamond—and the people there revere four great pithas—holy sites where monasteries have been built.

    The Navajo myth cycle reveres the Hero Twins—whose myth I sought to address in my failed UNM class!  Two heroic beings are also part of India’s great Hindu myth called the Ramayana. They are named Rama and Lakshmana.

                The brothers Rama and Lakshmana, c. 1710

    This is where we begin our story of India’s yoga.

    Lakshmana and Rama—like the Dine Hero twins Naayéé’neizghání and Tóbájíshchíní—battle bad guys in the Ramayana, but to gain power they are trained by a great yogi named Vishvamitra.

    When he trains the boys, he supplies them with powerful weapons and teaches them forms of the sun salutation (surya namaskar).

    This set of movements is now a basic form of our modern yoga, but it was not always so.

    The sun salutation involves athletic sets of push-ups and knee-bend-like poses, but it was first designed as a spiritual practice—as a way of worshipping the sun.

    Sun salutation belongs to a set of older practices from the Vedic period of India—1500 to 800 BCE.  In that time, Asiatic Indians performed sun salutations among other ritual practices that sought to connect to deities like the Sun-God—just as Navajo ceremonies connect them to their gods today.

    With the passing centuries, the sun salutation evolved side-by-side with yoga.

    We have descriptions of practices called yoga from as far back as 600 BCE—about 700 years before the story of the Ramayana took its full form.   (The yogi-teacher of the brothers, Rama and Lakshmana—Vishvamitra—was so long-lived, he is said to have been alive even around 600 BCE!)

    The explanations of yoga from 600 BCE created a new focus for India’s people.

    Yoga resulted from a deep focus on transcending this world.

    The aim of transcending the things of this world is a very minor part of Navajo cultural practice.  For the Dine, there isn’t an elaborate mythology that talks about what happens after death.

                    Seizing Sanctimonium by Leonard Greco

    For those in India, new ideas about yoga and what happens in the course of life and death were affected by ideas of karma which were expressed in important books called Upanishads.  The Upanishads were composed from about 600 BCE to about 200 CE and they explained how to control the individual journey through life, death and reincarnation.

    This Hindu focus on the individual journey is mirrored in Native American practices concerned with the Vision Quest.

    If we go back to the Ramayana stories of India’s “hero twins” Rama and Lakshmana, we note that they took clear form near the time of Christ’s birth in Israel.  In India, there were many developments which mirrored what was going on in Israel. The most prominent one was the formulation of what we call “Bhakti Yoga,”—the yoga of devotion to the gods expressed through personal relationship to deities and singing their praise.

    Bhakti Yoga is given clear form in a story of two other important heroes in India’s myths.

    These men aren’t brothers; but they are cousins. Named Krishna and Arjuna, they mirror the Navajo Hero Twins in being godlike:  Arjuna was a half-god, and Krishna was a full god.

    Krishna is still very much worshiped today.

    Their story—told in the circa 325 CE Bhagavad Gita—is shot through with descriptions of yoga and includes many kinds of meditative practice–roughly called Raja Yoga.

    The book is one long conversation between Krishna and Arjuna.

    It happens in the moments before a great battle between forces of good and evil.

    That talk explores states of mind, how karma works—and specifically how to dodge bad karma through Bhakti Yoga.

    The Bhagavad Gita (“The Lord’s Song”) remains a very important book for understanding how Bhakti Yoga and many other types of yoga are to be done.

    Another chief book that modern yogis still read is from the same period.

    Often dated to circa 375 CE, the Yoga Sutras doesn’t have any myth or story (though stories sprung up about the book and its author hundreds of years later!).  It is very trusted manual on Raja Yoga—and gives a very complete account of yoga’s meditative practices.

    In yoga training today, all throughout the world, this book is still studied carefully.

    We call the period in which the stories of Rama and Lakshmana and Krishna and Arjuna became popular, “The Epic Period,” because the great poems they appear in are called “Epics.”

    The Epic Period yielded to the Tantric period—which blended the rituals of the Vedic period, the focus on gods of the Epic period, and the yoga emphasis of the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras.

    This happened about 600 years after Christ’s birth.

    Tantra focused on cultivating power in the body and saw this world as the body of the Goddess—similar to the Native American understanding of the “Earth Mother.”

    This Tantric focus on the body led to our modern form of yoga found in studios around the planet.

    The formal name for this contemporary practice is Modern Postural Yoga.

    In the 11th century Tantric India was drastically changed with the arrival of Muslim rulers.

    India’s ways of approaching self-transformation and transcendence were greatly simplified then.

    Hatha Yoga—a type of practice that included postures (asanas), breath practices (pranayamas), and shatkarmas—intense internal cleansing practices—gained prominence.   

    Important books like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, from the 15th century, explain that practice—and this book—very much like the older Yoga Sutras—is still read today.

    In Gallup you have the 4 Corners Yoga Studio right down on Coal Street.

    It teaches a form of yoga often called Hot Yoga.

    It is derived from the work of a famous teacher from India named Bikram Choudhury.

    The Gallup Journey profiled the studio in a 2011 article, explaining that Bikram taught a set of 26 poses.

    Imitating the heat and humidity of India, he heated up his teaching rooms to create sweat to try and cleanse the body—somewhat like Hatha Yoga’s traditional shatkarmas did (as mentioned above).

    And, like the Hero Twins who ignored the advice of their mother, Changing Woman, to go out wander far and wide, Bikram is just one of large kaleidoscope of teachers who left Mother India to teach everywhere on this Earth.

    Bikram came to Hawaii and then Los Angeles in 1970, where he began spreading Modern Postural Yoga.

    But the first teacher who taught yoga publically outside India was Swami Vivekananda in 1893, and it was in 1975 that a teacher with the name of Krishna—Krishna Pattabhi Jois—came to America to teach sun salutation as a part of the practice.

    KP Jois’ teacher had blended sun salutes with yoga in the 1930s, and today—because it spread everywhere after Jois taught it—sun salutes are taught internationally.

    India’s globe-hopping yoga teachers have done the hero’s work of adapting an unusual indigenous practice to other lands.

    In every case, yoga had to be translated for non-indigenous audiences and similarities had to be found between India’s culture and the culture where yoga was taught.

    This article tries to do the same.  I hope some of the parallels I’ve pointed out between the world of yoga and the world of the Dine will help yoga land in Gallup more easily–and make a little bit of sense out of yoga to all who live here.

    Blessings on your yoga path—your ‘hózhó’ (Navajo Beauty Way) path, or whatever path you take in the world.


    Read it here, or on pages 36-7 of the January, 2017 Gallup Journey
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