Back in January, I attended a workshop at the Asheville Yoga Center — where I’m currently roughly halfway through my 300-hour advanced yoga teacher training. It was taught by one of the absolutely amazing teachers there, Michael Johnson. As I’ve said to Michael himself, each time I come to a workshop he leads, I feel like the actual topic of study, regardless of what we’ve ostensibly gathered to learn, is no more and no less than the sum total of humanity. He is a walking encyclopedia of human knowledge in such a dizzying array of fields that I feel like I could listen to him ramble about any topic and walk away with a mile-long reading list and thousand new questions.
This workshop in January was on a seminal text in the yogic tradition, the Bhagavad Gita. The title of this text loosely translates as the Song of the Giver (or, alternatively, Song of the Blessed One). It’s the story of Arjuna, who finds himself on the cusp of fighting a battle and realizes neither option (fighting the battle; laying down his arms) is good. The six books of the Gita are his inquiry into action vs. inaction, which unfolds through a conversation with Krishna (God incarnate).
While this may all seem very ethereal and amorphous, the lessons of the Gita are as applicable today as when the text was written, perhaps as early as the fifth century B.C.E. And in Michael’s masterful, everything-is-relevant-somehow workshop, we explored the ways in which the Gita relate to very pressing modern questions around moral psychology, free will, and how to have productive conversations with people who fundamentally disagree with your perspective.
I always walk away from a weekend with Michael feeling like I’m living up to about 3 percent of my potential, but I nevertheless continue to seek out study with him, as I also leave feeling indelibly touched by the wisdom he embodies. With the Gita, though, I also found much to take away. I’d like to share one particularly powerful thought from the Gita that touched me:
It is better to do your own duty badly, than to perfectly do another’s; you are safe from harm when you do what you should be doing.
This landed so powerfully for me mostly because I’ve really come to understand that, finally, I am doing what I should be doing.
I’m not sure when I started to feel that way, but I am 100% sure that I have found a way — through much trial and error, many U-turns and false starts, and a whole WHOLE (!) lot of luck — to construct a life where almost everything I do feels like something I really should be doing.
I recognize that most people who read those words will immediately have something of a negative response: Maybe you wonder why you cannot, too, feel the same about your work; maybe you are envious; maybe you think I must be delusional.
Trust me when I say that this didn’t just happen to me. And trust me further when I assure you that I don’t wake up a single day without recognizing how incredibly fortunate I am to have a life that brings me so much joy.
Am I totally safe from harm, as the Gita predicts? Of course not. Do I always do my duty perfectly? HA! Definitely not.
My wish for everyone I know, and all of the billions of people I do not know, is that we might each find the thing that we should be doing … and that we can do it, even for just a little bit, even just for one day. To feel the fullness of our experience. To lose track of time and space as you revel in the moment. To connect with something higher and bigger and more inclusive than a single human’s experience. Those are truly gifts, and I hope you will have them in your life. Helping others find them is why I decided to become a life coach. Sharing these gifts? It’s one of my life’s greatest joys.
The Gita is incredibly accessible, especially Stephen Mitchell’s new translation. It reads quickly, and it’s got some great quotable lines. If this sounds like your sort of thing, I recommend it. Especially if you’re fortunate enough to then go spend a weekend with Michael at the AYC.