Yoga is a Dirty Thing
“Fear of death carries its own essence and predominates [the consciousness of] even the wise.”
-Patanjai, Yoga Sutra 2.9
I’m just as much of a yogi as a suburban woman in Lululemon yoga pants doing downward dog at a trendy yoga studio in LA, dammit.
Just because I wear dirty overalls and smell like a barnyard full of mud and pig shit doesn’t mean that I don’t also appreciate a good Tree Pose (Vriksasana).
My yoga mat is a fifteen year old bright-orange monstrosity and smells like my twenty-year-old feet.
Certainly there has to be more dudes like me, who do hatha yoga to keep my increasingly painful back issues from completely overwhelming me, or savasana to calm my nerves down after a grueling day of dirty tractor work?
As a farmer yogi, I can do downward dog after chores in the field, and nobody but the neighboring bald eagles soaring in the wide blue sky will wonder what the heck I am up to.
I know a bunch of farmers. They are all yogis in their own way; some of them are gurus on tractors and others are seers in the mud.
Each yoga session, however any of us approach them, is an expression of our whole lives lived in one small frame of time. What we take back into our wider world is the gift that yoga gives us.
I raise animals for a living, and other people eat them. This is my full time job and it is a dirty job. Many people have hard, physically demanding dirty jobs. A lot of them would benefit from doing yoga. But there is an aura around yoga that keeps them away.
The picture that most people have of yoga is pretty black and white: a yoga class is made up of clean white yoga studios with plenty of Zen peace and soothing music. White woman contort their bodies into pretzels and afterward they talk softly amongst themselves over green tea and vegan scones.
That airbrushed picture is a modern invention.
Even a few dozen years ago yoga was an all-male practice. In the 1930s Sri Krishnamacharya accepted Indra Devi to study underneath him. This woman led yoga out of the eight-limbed grasp of men and into the hands and feet of many women in the west. http://archive.spright.com/exercises/history-of-women-practicing-yoga/
Going back even further, yoga is thought to have been invented around the fifth or sixth century BCE by the Indus Sarsavati Civilization. Between 7000 and 5000 BCE, pastoral nomads, hunters, and farmers began developing villages in the basins of the Indus and Sarsavati Rivers. Over the millennia, these populations centers grew into the largest and most complex civilization in ancient history. At it’s maturity in 2500 BCE it had a population of over 5 million people, larger then Egypt or Mesopotamia. It’s zenith lasted about 13 centuries. This culture was created from the abundance produced by farmers and herders, and from this abundance, yoga emerged.
After a period of unstable rainfall and weather patterns, this large and complex society began to dissipate into smaller, more compact rural communities based on herding. It is thought that Aryan influence came from the west, and a post-urbanization period followed the gradual collapse of the Indus Sarsavati Civilization with a new Vedic tradition, influenced by the Aryans, emerging from between 1900–1300 BCE. The Rig Veda was the collection of all the spiritual knowledge of the priestly case, the Brahmin, and the seers, known as Rishis. The oldest passages in the Rig Veda appear to date from between 5000–6000 BCE. https://www.humanjourney.us/ideas-that-shaped-our-modern-world-section/early-civilizations-harappa/
“The first use of the root of word “yoga” is in hymn 5.81.1 of the Rig Veda, a dedication to rising Sun-god in the morning (Savitri), where it has been interpreted as “yoke” or “yogically control”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga#Pre-Vedic_India
Those of us who farm have a unique perspective on life and death. Almost every day, we are busy taking care of babies being born, whether that be with seedlings or calves, almost every day we are dealing with blood, compost, water, and feed. All of these things flow from the vast well that is the circle of life and death.
As farmers, we toil endlessly to grow food. What we know as farmers is that all food is inherently complicated, and involves numerous lives and deaths.
What is death for one life is food for another life. What is life for one being is death for another being.
The circle is indescribably complex.
What we know as farmers is that there is little use in simplifying our dietary choices down to a word, such as vegan, vegetarian, or even carnivore. We all eat life and death with every bite that we take. Perhaps that is why we hold onto our food fetishes with so much conviction — considering that we are eating death every day may be hard to swallow for some.
But that is the beauty of being a yogi –we end up looking at the truth of life and death in every session, even if all we wanted to do was stretch our backs.
I think farmers, along with those who practice medicine and health care of any sort, are ideal yogis. We live right next door to the million births and million deaths that happen every day.
As hard working dirty farmers we treat our body roughly, and we could all treat our bodies with a little more care. Our bodies are all we really own.
At some point, the grim reaper will slice off our own head — as farmers we know this is inevitable. Unlike most plants and animals, some of us might be pumped full of chemicals and stuck into the ground like a sterile seed, unable to grow or decompose. We, as a society, are so afraid of death that we don’t even let our dead bodies feed other life. Instead, we announce firmly to the world that “I’m putting a stop to this circle of life!”.
Yoga forces us to confront our real minds and our real bodies.
When we start a yoga session to begin the physical postures of Hatha yoga, we go through an entire lifetime of movements and thoughts, and hopefully we end up clearer about our life off the mat as well. In the end, we lay still on our backs like corpses, rehearsing the inevitable with mindfulness.
As a yogi, I’ve struggled with the concepts of raising animals as my work. For many years in the past I thought that it was more pure to eat only vegetables. I thought that I was causing less suffering by eating only plants. But as a farmer, I realized that was all a fantasy.
To me, it seems that the so-called “purity” of eating a vegetarian diet originates from the same mindset that created sacred cows in India.
A cow provides so much sustenance to even the poorest of farmers on even the poorest of land. She provides milk, and thus butter, cheese, yogurt, and cream. She provides meat, from her male offspring. She provides fertilization of the land, requiring only the grass that grows there. She is gentle and docile and has calm demeanor. And after the cows life is over, she provides leather, meat, and bone.
“In the time of the oldest Hindu sacred text, the Rig Veda (c. 1500 B.C.), cow meat was consumed. Like most cattle-breeding cultures, the Vedic Indians generally ate the castrated steers, but they would eat the female of the species during rituals or when welcoming a guest or a person of high status. Ancient ritual texts known as Brahmanas (c. 900 B.C.) and other texts that taught religious duty (dharma), from the third century B.C., say that a bull or cow should be killed to be eaten when a guest arrives. According to these texts, “the cow is food.” Even when one passage in the “Shatapatha Brahmana” (18.104.22.168) forbids the eating of either cow or bull, a revered ancient Hindu sage named Yajnavalkya immediately contradicts it, saying that, nevertheless, he eats the meat of both cow and bull, “as long as it’s tender”. http://theconversation.com/hinduism-and-its-complicated-history-with-cows-and-people-who-eat-them-80586
In The Mahabharata Epic, the earth turns into a cow and pleads for her life in exchange for endless supply of milk, and that cemented the place of a sacred cow in India, for of course we cannot eat our mother.
Today, people in India have literally been hanged because they have eaten beef, without any apparent awareness of their extreme irony on the part of the murderers.
Those who farm, herd, hunt, fish, or gather food from the earth all feel the sacred interconnection of all life viscerally and spiritually. In the same way, when we get on the mat and feel our own bodies ache and grind, feel our breath move in and out of our lungs, and listen to the endless stream of thoughts in our heads — we know we too are sacred.
The Yoga of Death is the union of our life consciousness with our death consciousness, and it might be the most important yoga that we can practice.
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