Trauma Sensitive Yoga and the Bhagavad Gita


The Bhagavad Gita is one of the world’s greatest philosophical texts.  We don’t know exactly when it was committed to writing, but some say around the 1st century of the current era, roughly 2000 years ago.  It’s couched within the longest epic poem the world has known, the Mahabharata.   The Bhagavad Gita, or the “Song of the Lord,” is recited daily by devout practitioners within the yogic tradition, with the aim of seeking truth or understanding about what one’s role is in life, and how to accomplish one’s goals.


The story is about a war that took place within an Indian family many centuries ago.  The hero of the story, Arjuna, must fight alongside his four brothers, to put down their kinsmen – their cousins and uncles – to regain not just their material possessions, but the integrity of the family. 


This war is symbolic of the war that each of us, today, must fight daily.  It’s not necessarily a war with another country or within our country, but a fight with our own ego.  Like the hero in the Bhagavad Gita, we struggle with the part of our self that tries to get us to give up on the challenges which we face.  We struggle, for instance, to maintain our health through daily exercise and proper diet.  We struggle sometimes to go to our job, perhaps because we don’t feel a sense of purpose or worth.  Or we struggle to continue to learn because we fall into the trap of thinking we understand everything about how the world works.


Arjuna has this same struggle.  It’s an ancient struggle of humanity.  Arjuna is dejected and is ready to give up the fight and makes all kinds of excuses as to why he should put down his arms.  His attendant, the God Vishnu in the human form of Krishna, advises him otherwise and explains to him the importance of carrying out his duties as a warrior to fulfill his destiny.


It may sound strange to westerner’s ears that we have been put here on this earth to carry out a mission.  Certainly, we are told, we have so many choices available to us.  But, while there are these myriads of possibilities presented, there’s only one thing we need to concern ourselves with, and it has to do with what we are doing at this moment.  Our problem is that we are not focused and not in this moment.  Our body is here, but our mind is somewhere else – either in the future or the past, or perhaps daydreaming.


The Bhagavad Gita gives us advice on how to return fully to the present moment to do what we need to do.  Krishna, in the chapter on the “Yoga of Action,” offers the following sage advice:


·      It’s better to do your own job poorly than someone else’s job well.  (3.35)

·      We can’t escape having to act by remaining secluded in meditation.  (3.4 – 3.6)

·      We need to learn to control our senses to accomplish our mission.  (3.7)

·      Perform our work without any attachments, and without thinking of the benefits or gains for ourselves.  (3.9, 3.19, 3.25)


The key to doing any action is through controlling our senses, and we can understand better how our body and mind work through awareness of Krishna’s schema of what the whole person is comprised of.  In this particular schema (there are other schemas he uses, and this is just one of them) he says there are five aspects to a human:


·      The body

·      The senses

·      The mind

·      The discriminating intellect

·      The Atman


These five are in a hierarchical relationship to each other.  The Bhagavad Gita reads:


The senses are stronger than the body.  The mind is stronger than the senses; the discriminating intellect is stronger than mind; and Atman is above the intellect. (3.42)


In hatha yoga, we work with all five of these dimensions simultaneously.  Our body is the most obvious of these elements, and contains our arms, legs, neck, shoulders, spine, head, as well as our internal organs.  When we think of yoga in the west, we generally think of the physical, bodily practices, and of improving our body’s health. 


However, in Yogic philosophy, body and mind are not two separate things as we often imagine them to be.  Though there is a hierarchical relationship with the above five factors listed, when we act on any one of the five, it effects all the others.  We use our senses, our eyes, for example, for balancing asanas like “tree.”  We use our mind, the third aspect, to become aware of our body and how we are feeling in the various forms our body takes.  When awareness is established, we can use our discriminating intellect – our ability to make choices – to help us decide what to do with our body, whether to extend our arms further, or to move them back, for example, in a forward fold.


In Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY), the discriminating intellect is what we develop when we make choices with our body.  For survivors of early childhood trauma, this factor, the ability to discriminate between what we want and what we don’t want to do with your body, may be compromised or under-utilized.  TCTSY calls our attention to the power we have within us to choose what we want to do with our body.  This can have repercussions, of course, in our daily life, as we go about with myriads of moments in which we are confronted with a panoply of choices – such as which of the 1000 cereals to purchase at the supermarket.


Most of us are not aware of our power to choose, or even that every moment contains choice, and so we go about our daily life stuck in unconscious routines and habits, doing things because that’s the way we’ve always done them.  There is a certain feeling of safety and comfort in the familiarity of our actions.  We may not have a lot of motivation to change that which we are comfortable with, especially if we feel safe in those familiar actions.


The problem with this way of living is that safety is not reality, and we know this (perhaps unconsciously) on some deep level within us.  Our wish to remain forever in a feeling of security deadens our sense of vitality to a certain degree.  When we become awake to our ability to choose, however, our life starts to shift.  We may feel at a crossroads between continuing on the way we have been, a way that is safe but not really alive on the one hand, and entering the unknown on the other hand.  By consciously making decisions we disrupt a narrative we tell ourselves that says, “nothing about my life is going to change.”


In TCTSY we are encouraged to become curious about our felt experience, and then to choose from among a couple of options of how to hold our body.  In this way we are developing both our mind – our ability to be aware – and our discriminating intellect – our ability to decide what to do next.  This all happens by drawing awareness to our senses – eyes, ears, nose, etc. – and our physical body.


The fifth aspect, Atman, is a little more complex to understand.  In Indian philosophy it has to do with the part of us that takes on different forms from one life to the next.  Now we’re in a human form, but in a previous life we may have been an animal or a plant.  In the next life we may be something else.  Most westerners that I practice with don’t necessarily believe in reincarnation, or that our soul transmigrates from one body to the next.  If they do believe in it, it doesn’t play a central or explicit role in their practice, and for the sake of TCTSY it’s not necessary to believe in reincarnation.


Another more scientific way to think about Atman, then, is as memory.  There is a part of us, not just located in our brain, but in every fiber of our being, that remembers all our past experiences, and continues to get transmitted from one moment to the next.  On a biological level we see this happening with DNA.  DNA carries memory not just of what’s happening in our own life, but also in that of our ancestors.  DNA is passed on to us through our parents, and so their experiences are also in us.  What’s happened to our parents and their parents is part of the fiber of who we are.  If our parents and grandparents experienced racism, for example and their parents and grandparents experienced slavery, that is also in our DNA in our present life.


In other words, all of our ancestors’ experiences, both the good and the bad, including trauma, get carried in our body whether we are aware of it or not.  If we are not aware of this, then we can be acting out of past circumstances that no longer exist in our present life.  Thus, we are often using coping skills that were relevant to our ancestors, but no longer relevant to us. 


When we are practicing TCTSY we may get in touch with the trauma rooted in our physical body.  We might see that the way that we act is like the way our parents acted, and that we’re no longer in the same boat as our parents were.  There may be certain traits in us that got passed down from our unknown ancestors, yet they are also within us.  TCTSY gives us the opportunity to become aware of how we are holding our body so that we can choose what makes the most sense to us now. 


While doing TCTSY we don’t have to draw a conscious connection between what we do with our body and the experiences of our ancestors.  Nor do we need to understand that connection or articulate it with words.  All we need to do is focus on our physical body, on sensation.  However, because our body, from a yogic perspective, also contains the other four aspects of senses, mind, discriminating intellect, and Atman, they are all influenced by what we do with our body.


Arjuna, like all of us, gets stuck in not desiring to act for the sake of his mission, what he was born here to do.  The feeling of having a sense of purpose may feel foreign to us.  But what might it feel like to have a sense of purpose in life?  Is that not empowering?  The message of the Bhagavad Gita and of TCTSY is that we have within us what we need to change our lives, to heal our lives, and to accomplish our goals – whatever they may be.



The words Zen Fields and a signature stamp next to a spare ink pen outline of a meditator in a field


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