The “Battlefield” of Yoga – Its Purpose and Obstacles


Our second week of reading The Bhagavad Gita places us square in the middle of a battlefield, being told a story as recounted by a royal minister (Sanjaya) to a blind old king (Dhritarashtra). A warrior, Arjuna, apparently on the side of “good” is in despair and pleads with his friend Krishna to help him with this dilemma of fighting close relatives, teachers, and friends, going head to head with his cheating, jealous, and evil cousin, Duryodhana. It is a great start to a dramatic action film, but how is this a book that leads us in the teachings of yoga?

The first two chapters of The Bhagavad Gita highlight, through Arjuna’s despair and confusion, how many of us step into a yoga class. We might have had an injury. We feel stressed. We just need a break from the outside world for a moment of quiet with ourselves. Or maybe we are looking for some spiritual guidance for our life’s purpose! No matter the source, all of the above are disturbances on some level of our being, a dilemma, however small or large, for which we are seeking a remedy. Like Arjuna, we can see that there may be external or internal forces very close to us that cause disturbances in our body, mind, and consciousness; “enemies”, if you will. And, as Krishna reveals, yoga provides a platform and a practice to face or even “go to war” with those enemies to eradicate them leading toward a more peaceful end.

The dialog that occurs between Arjuna and Krishna in The Bhagavad Gita is symbolized as an internal conversation between our ego-self that has all the questions about life, purpose, death, and duty, and our Divine Self that has clear vision and undisturbed consciousness. They sit in a chariot together symbolizing the body within the “battlefield” of life. The “body” is connected by the reins symbolizing the external mind which is connected to five horses that represent our 5 senses. As Krishna takes the reins and begins to teach, Arjuna surrenders his mind and senses in that moment to listen closely and be directed by the Divine Truths told to him by Krishna.

The Gita and The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (another well-known yogic text) make very clear that Yoga is not a path of ease or surface level comfort. The first and second chapters of The Bhagavad Gita in particular bring forth the feeling and experience of all 5 Afflictions we may face in life as well as our practice of Yoga. The Kleshas (afflictions) are listed in The Yoga Sutras, second chapter, sutras II.3-II.9:

  • Avidya : Spiritual Ignorance – Arjuna is mistaking the outward, physical, ever-changing Nature of the World (Prakrti) as the truth, when the REAL Truth lies within the unchanging, pure, undisturbed Atma (also referred to as purusa)
  • Asmita : Egoism – Arjuna is attaching to his individual identity along with all the identities he stands before on the battlefield. This identification with all of our external achievements and relationships as “who we are” contributes to Avidya and causes much of the despair and confusion that Arjuna is experiencing.
  • Dvesa : Avoidance of Pain – Arjuna would like to just avoid his duty as it will be a painful battle. However, in avoidance of his own duty, greater pains will be felt and consequences will arise, likely much more painful and longer lasting than the pain of the fight. To fight means to face the evil that has taken the kingdom, to be honorable and bring peace to himself and the kingdom.
  • Raga : Attachment to pleasure – We think that the avoidance of something painful will bring pleasure, or we just continue to seek pleasurable things expecting that that will keep us from despair. Pleasurable things are not permanent and therefore attachment to them causes pain in their absence.
  • Abhinivesa : Attachment to Life and Fear of DeathThe Yoga Sutras of Patanjali clarify that this obstacle is the most difficult to overcome even for the most wise. Krishna makes it clear that the true path of yoga is to overcome this Obstacle – to understand our Truth as the unchanging Atman and know that there is no end to life and no real death to the Self.

The depth of The Gita reveals itself immediately, but what I continue to appreciate is the ability for Krishna to see and understand Arjuna’s hesitation, not just in action, but also in the belief of his teaching. Chapter 2, paragraphs 26-28, show compassion to all those who may be skeptical of the idea of “life eternal”, reincarnation, or the ceaselessness of Indian Cosmology. This is why the second chapter of The Yoga Sutras is also the most helpful to us in our modern practice of yoga. The lofty idea of coming into “union” (yog) with our Divine Self to “still all fluctuations of our consciousness” (Sutra I.2) is great, but HOW to do it is a whole other matter. And, it is clear in both yogic texts that yoga is not a path without effort or discipline of body or of mind (tapas). To work, fight and live in this temporary body we are given are the necessities of our practice of yoga! But how and for what result?

In the second chapter of The Gita, Krishna introduces karma yoga (the yoga path of selfless action). Patanjali also speaks of a “yogic path of action” called Kriya Yoga in the second chapter of The Yoga Sutras. The familiar, active, and physical practice of asanas (postures) that are the focus of today’s modern yoga, highlight the importance of “action” in our Self study. Patanjali actually lists qualities of “perfection in asana” in Yoga Sutras II.46-48 that are mirrored in Krishna’s teaching to Arjuna as he convinces him to carry out his Divine duty:

  • “Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence, and benevolence of spirit:” “Truth and right can never be obtained by the weak. You are a great warrior, a proven winner. Cast off this faintheartedness. Stand up, O scorcher of enemies!” (BG II.3)
  • “Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached:” “On this path no effort goes to waste and there is no failure…For the person of steady mind, Arjuna, there is always just one decision, but for the quivering mind pulled in a thousand directions, the decisions that plague it are endless, and they exhaust one’s mental strength.” (BG II.40 and 41)
  • “From then on, the practitioner is undisturbed by dualities:” “The way to win this great war is to react alike to both pain and pleasure, profit and loss, victory and defeat.” (BG II.37) “Indeed, equanimity is yoga!” (BG II.48)

Yes, it is a lot to process and contemplate, and we have just gotten started! Try not to get overwhelmed as Arjuna is in the face of such immense work! Listen closely to what your Divinity within might be trying to show you…and keep reading…

Jennie Williford CIYT

Jennie Williford (CIYT Level 3) is a transplant to LaCrosse via Montana, Illinois, and originally Texas. Throughout her life moves and 5 trips to India, Jennie has acquired a well-rounded and multi-faceted approach to Iyengar Yoga since her start in 1998. Jennie loves the experimental and explorative nature of yoga in accessing deeper knowledge of the Self on every level. The practice of yoga can be intense and introspective, however as practitioners we can be light-hearted and open-minded in our discipline. Jennie is intrigued by the philosophy of yoga and hopes to share this depth of subject while teaching the physical and mental benefits that come from the practice of posture.