This is the part in the Gita when Arjuna wanted to run away to the Himalayas and live in a cave instead of fighting in the Pandava war.
He realized that those on the other side of the battlefield were members of his own family, his friends and relatives.
Sound familiar to what we’re seeing in our world today?
The Bhagavad Gita centers around the great cosmic battle between good and evil and with a dry mouth, a swirling worldview, shaky limp legs and hot flashes; in these three lines of the great Hindu epic, Arjuna found himself acutely aware of his nervous system.
I know I’ve noticed similar feelings in my own body, especially in the last year. Watching friends, family and fellow Yogis polarize and take sides (or not) when systemic oppression, inequality and distorted use of power is our collective lived reality has had me feeling all sorts of feelings. I watched as many tried to “rise above” what was occurring within their bodies and here on Earth as my pendulum swung between disbelief and anger, apathy and action, despair and faith, as I’m sure so many others have too.
In these lines of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna was in complete despair and collapsed on his chariot; he told Krishna he could not find the strength necessary to fight his family and friends across the field. Krishna didn’t commend him for collapsing and refusing to fight, rather he told him he couldn’t do that; it wasn’t in Arjuna’s nature to look away, rise above and not participate. He was a Shatriya, a warrior, it was his dharma to fight but at the moment he had lost his fire and was in a collapsed nervous system state. Krishna spent the next 18 chapters of the Gita explaining that it was through action alone that the discomfort Arjuna was feeling would dissipate and his dharma would be realized. The answer wasn’t more meditation, reading of the scriptures or chanting the names of god. Krishna told Arjuna he couldn’t run off and meditate; action was what was needed to create the momentum necessary to win the battle.
In chapters 14, 17, and 18 Krishna discusses the gunas. The gunas describe the ways that we interact with the world around us and make our choices. Learning about the gunas allows us to depersonalize (become unattached to) the fluctuations of the mind, which includes the nervous system and the emotions, while we become familiar with the way nature is mirrored in our own selves. Knowing about the gunas gives clarity around who you are and what you’re experiencing so you can meet yourself where you are and use that knowledge to find resilience and vitality. Using the power of witness awareness (consciousness) we can observe the fluctuations of our mind, nervous system and emotions (energy) to learn how to bring more balance into life through this awareness.
These teachings from the Bhagavad Gita align very well with Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory. Polyvagal theory is controversial in some circles and revolutionary in others. It tips the current understanding of a two part autonomic nervous system on its head; the gunas support the theory’s speculations and preliminary findings and by using both together, we can move our understanding of both from intellectualization into embodiment.
This is necessary as we forge the path forward; we will have many more sweaty palm, disorienting and frightful moments as we move through the rest of our lives and it’s only by learning to move through them where progress is made.
Want to learn more about polyvagal theory and the gunas? Are you a yogi who is looking to take your practice off of your mat and into your life? Are you a yoga teacher looking for continuing education hours or wanting your teaching to reflect the deeper learnings of Yoga?
All of the classes I’m leading this year are meant to help you do just that. The first class is this Saturday, it’s a two hour, sliding scale, small group discussion on the ways your body and nervous system communicate with you. There’s three dates to choose from if this Saturday doesn’t work. Find more details and RSVP here.
I’m also leading a 6 week long immersion that begins on March 20th to help you embody the teachings of Yoga while you gain a deeper understanding of your own body, mind and nervous system. We go deep in immersion, I teach specifically on this topic of the gunas and polyvagal theory plus more that will help you bring you into a deeper relationship with yourself and the world around you. You can check out the weekly immersion curriculum here.