• 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 composed pointed to similarities among Christian, Hindu and Navajo Culture.

    Of course, Navajos make up 90% of Gallup’s population.

    This article is about yoga and aims to look at overlaps between Navajo and Hindu culture–where yoga was born. 

    I figured the best way to make yoga’s story relevant for Gallup Journey readers would be draw parallels between the way of yoga and the Navajo way.

    There are tons of similarity between the culture of India and the culture of the Dine.

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

    The Navajos orient their sacred land between four sacred mountains.  The subcontinent of India is shaped like an inverted diamond.  It is ringed by four points, too, and its people 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’ll 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. To gain power they are trained by the yogi sage named Vishvamitra.

    He supplies them with powerful weapons and teaches them forms of the sun salutation (surya namaskar).

    The set movements of surya namaskar are a basic form of our modern yoga, but it was not always so. (And the story-tellers idea of what Vishvamitra taught is certainly different from the exercises we do today.)

    Today’s sun salutation involves athletic sets of push-ups and standing knee-bends, but before the 20th century, it was less athletic, and it was used as a spiritual practice—a way of worshiping the sun.

    Sun salutation belongs to a set of older practices from the Vedic period of India—1800 to 800 BCE. 

    In that time, Asiatic Indians performed sun salutations and other ritual practices to connect to deities like the Sun God—just like Navajo ceremonies connect them to their gods today.

    As the centuries passed, 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 around even in 600 BCE!)

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

    Those in India began to focus on transcending this world, and yoga was their method to do so.

    Transcending this world is a 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 journey through life, death and reincarnation.

    The Hindu focus on an individual’s journey is mirrored in Native American practices concerned with the Vision Quest.

    If we go back to the stories of Rama and Lakshmana, we note that they took clear form near the time of Christ in Israel. 

    In India, there were developments which mirrored what was going on in early Christianity.

    The most prominent one might be the formulation of what we call “Bhakti Yoga,”—the yoga of devotion to the gods expressed through personal relationships to deities—and through singing their praise.

    We get a clear description of Bhakti Yoga in an Indian myth about another pair of heroes.

    These two aren’t brothers; but they’re cousins.

    HERO TWINS

                 HERO TWINS

    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 Bhagavad Gita (“The Lord’s Song”) is one long conversation between Krishna and Arjuna.

    The whole exchange occurs in single frozen moment before the advent of a battle between two great armies.

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

    The Gita remains a very important book for understanding how Bhakti Yoga and other types of yoga are to be done.

    A key part of yoga’s story is also found in one other book composed near the time of the Bhagavad Gita.

    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 (meditative yoga) and gives a complete account of these practices.

    In yoga training today, all throughout the world, the Yoga Sutras is still studied carefully.

    We call the period in which the stories of Rama, 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 three things that came before it: the rituals of the Vedic period, the god-focus of the Epic period, with the yoga emphasis of the Bhagavad Gita, and 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 would lead to the form of yoga now found in studios around the planet.

    The stage was set for the evolution of a more physical style of yoga in the 11th century when the Muslims arrived as rulers and the Tantric practices were transformed.

    Hatha Yoga—a yoga that emphasizes 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 a large kaleidoscope of teachers who left Mother India to teach everywhere on Earth.

    Bikram came to Hawaii and then Los Angeles in 1970—where he began spreading his form of Modern Postural Yoga.

    But the first teacher who taught yoga publicly outside India preceded Bikram by 77 years.  

    Swami Vivekananda first taught the U.S. in 1893.

    And five years after Bikram a teacher with the name of Krishna—Krishna Pattabhi Jois—came to America to teach the 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 after Jois taught it—sun salutes are taught all over the world.

    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-Asian audiences, and similarities had to be found between India’s culture and the culture where yoga was being spread.

    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 to land in Gallup more easily–and make a little bit of sense out of yoga to everyone who lives here.

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


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