On my first few trips to Mysore in the ‘nineties I would study Sanskrit chanting with a beautiful man called Professor Nairayanācarya (please forgive me if I have spelt that incorrectly as I knew him as “The Professor”). A small group of us Western yoga students would gather at his house twic a week and he would teach us to chant the “Bhagavad Gita”. Though I was a poor student, these sessions were one of the highlights of those early trips.
Not only was the Professor an erudite and learned man, he was also very funny. He had been a performing magician earlier in his life but was now retired and tutoring young Indians in English via Shakespeare’s plays. I was fortunate enough to be there on two occassions when he did a magic show for us and he was hilarious but also very good. He was missing his front two teeth so I’m not sure that his pronunciation of Sanskrit was super precise, but his classes were a joy.
Unfortunately he had a heart attack and then died not too long after and being the bad student I was, I stopped chanting. I told myself that this was in honour of the Professor, but really it was just laziness. Then when I took my family to Mysore in 2011 I felt the desire to chant again. We were renting an apartment from Alex Medin and so I asked him if he knew anyone who could teach me. He recommended a young Swami who was living downstairs and so I approached him and he agreed to teach me. I thought we would be doing the Gita again but in the first session we had he just launched into the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and so I just went with the flow. I’ve been chanting the Sutras ever since but I feel like I will get back to the Gita at some stage.
Why am I being nostalgic about this? Well lately I’ve been thinking about the imagery of the Gita and how that, like so much else in it corresponds so neatly with the Sutras. I hasten to point out that I am not an expert in either text so I may have this completely wrong.
I like to think of the image of Arjuna in his chariot as a metaphor for our material state. So you have the horses as a representation of our more basic “animal” impulses. And aren’t those horses beautiful and strong and powerful! You can understand the attraction of them and how difficult it can be not to be drawn in by them.
Then you have the chariot in which we ride, our body. Again what a beautiful and magnificent vehicle this is, but like all vehicles it needs constant maintenance. Many of us are “bush mechanics” and believe that we know best what our body needs. As I’ve got older I’ve got much better at listening to the actual experts and taking their advice. This began with accepting Sri K Pattabhi Jois as my guru and following his guidance in my Yoga practice as closely as I can. For me this is no different from taking my mechanics advice when he says the brakes on my car need replacing. Now that I’m well in to my 60s I’m also a lot more willing to listen to my doctor’s advice and luckily I have a very good doctor who I like and trust. This vehicle has got a few miles on the clock now but I still fancy a few more.
Arjuna, the charioteer of course represents, to me anyway, the mind. This is the one making the decisions, the one holding the reins, the one deciding where we are going. What a huge responsibility! It is crucial that the mind has clarity. It should not be distracted from our path. We control and harness our impulses, maintain our bodies in the best possible condition and constantly direct our mind to our goal. For Yogis and Yoginis this goal is Samādhi or liberation.
In Ashtanga Yoga the Yamas control the baser drives, Niyama, Āsana and Pranayama hone the body and the 3 deepening levels of meditation focus the mind. Always with the intention that this leads us inevitably to Samādhi.
I also note that Krishna or the divine is separate from body and mind. The Avidyā or ignorance of the Yoga Sutras is to mistakenly think that our impulses or our body or our mind are divine. They are in the divine but separate from it as an eel is in the river but separate from it.
So how do we achieve our lofty goal? By putting our mat down and practising. As Guruji said many times, “practice, practice, practice and all is coming”.