AS PUBLISHED IN YOGACITY NYC
The main lobby of Pure Yoga is covered in backpacks and notebooks. Groups of people, some from as far away as Arizona, England, and India, sit together eating snacks and talking. It looks like a college common room around exam time. But these studious people, ranging from early 20s to late 40s, are not gathered to take a test. They are here to receive the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu text, as taught by Tibetan Buddhist monk Geshe Michael Roach and his co-teacher Lama Christie McNally.
For eight evenings in November, Roach and McNally explicated the Gita—which is 9th scripture course in their Yoga Studies Institute (YSI) series—discussing the text’s insights into karma and ethical living. The conversation between Arjuna, the warrior prince, and Krishna, the Hindu god (disguised as Arjuna’s trusted friend and charioteer) is a model of student-guru relationship, and a fitting tableau to explain some of yoga’s subtle concepts.
The excitement in the room was palpable. Roach and McNally only come to New York about twice a year and many students—including long-time ones—had not heard this particular teaching. As well, the duo will be traveling extensively in 2010, before they undertake another 3-year silent retreat later in the year. Both will make them inaccessible to their New York-based students.
Roach and McNally taught from a stage covered in roses and lilies. Each night, when they entered the room, students bowed, offering abundant flowers, fruit, chocolate, CDs of music, and even boxes of breakfast cereal. These entrances took quite a while as the teachers gathered the goods and chatted with students.
Then, Lama Christie, dressed in her signature white cotton, opened the formal teaching with a heart-centered meditation and visualization.
Rather than go chapter by chapter through the Gita, the two used particular stanzas to discuss key ideas of karma, the laws of action, and perception.
Present action, they said, does not lead to present results. That’s just our wish to control of our lives. Rather, present situations spring from “seeds” planted long ago. So, if you want something in your future life, give it away now. If you want a lot of money, give a lot of money away (Roach has written books on this). If you want a good boyfriend, help someone else meet their romantic partner. If you love churros (a fried Spanish donut, often sold on subway platforms), give all your churros away. Roach used the example of receiving a pizza box full of churros after sharing a bag with some students.
“In our life, we are trained to think we can’t get our goal or that we should have reasonable goals,” says Roach. “If you understand how to do an action, you don’t have to settle for anything less anymore.” We can—and should—dream big, but to get everything we want we need to stop thinking of ourselves. In helping others first, our own dreams will be fulfilled.
Also, they lectured, things in the material and emotional world are projections from within us. As subjective constructions, they don’t actually exist. It’s because form and reality are not fixed that enlightenment—a major shift in perspective—is possible.
Some attendees, like Edward Lafferty, assistant to a senior YSI teacher, felt that they were receiving spiritual nourishment just by being at the event. “It’s very clear that things are happening at a deeper level,” he said. “There’s some sort of transmission going on beyond the words.”
Others were curious. Piotr Bracichowicz, a lecturer in computer engineering at CUNY, had come along with his wife, a yoga teacher. “These are simple things they’re talking about,” he said, “but they are life changing. We cannot make an action expecting a certain result. But we are responsible for making good actions anyway. It’s a great practice.”
But for others, the event raised questions. Phebe Palin, psychotherapist and lecturer at Brooklyn College, found the ceremony around the teaching distracting.“I was surprised that it took them 45 minutes to get into the room every night,” says Palin who is currently training enrolled in the Conquering Lion yoga teacher training program. “I would have liked to have heard them teach more.”
The program, slated to end at 11pm each night, often ran past midnight.
As for why now is the time to teach the Bhagavad Gita, Lobsang Chukyi, Buddhist nun and assistant to Roach and McNally commented, “The story centers on someone who is confused in midst of battlefield—confused about what to do. The world is confused right now. People don’t know what to do in their lives. They want the knowledge.”
As attendees searched for their shoes and socks at the end of the night, many lovingly watched their teachers as they left the studio. The feeling of excitement hadn’t dimmed. It was a bit tired, but still burning bright.