The fight in yoga and how Richard became the Lionheart
There’s a legend about how Richard the Lionheart, a famous king and warrior during the 12th century, got his name.
Richard was imprisoned on his way home from the Crusades by the King of the Roman Empire. As the story goes, the King decided he would first starve his prisoner—and then he would unleash a wild lion into the cell. What did Richard do when he heard of this terrible plot? He did the only thing he could do: He prepared to fight. Richard took the candle in his cell and melted the wax into his palm where it hardened, giving him a stronger fist.
On the day of the fight, the King threw a huge banquet, invited everyone. Down in the prison cells, a weakened Richard held his fist around the hard wax and listened to the growls of the ravenous lion as it was brought down the steps. The guards opened the door of Richard’s cell and released the lion. As the lion leapt through the air to attack, Richard sent a single punch into the lion’s chest. The punch broke through the skin and the ribs and Richard ripped the lion’s still beating heart out with his bare hands.
With the cell door now open and the guards stunned, Richard carried the hot and bloody heart all the way up the stairs to the banquet hall where the King was hosting his great feast. Richard threw the bloody heart down on the King’s own head table and proceeded to eat the heart raw with his hands.
Hence, Richard the Lionheart.
What does this have to do with yoga? Is this kind of fight, this kind of violence, a way to live—or a way not to live?
The yoga sūtras offer a “path of action” for practice: “Kriyā yoga, the path of action, consists of self-discipline, study, and dedication to the Lord” (II.1). But there are bounds on our actions, including the observation of certain ethics like nonviolence (II.30).
Richard is not the only great man to be faced with such an ethical dilemma.
Arjuna, a great warrior, was once so overcome by grief standing on the field of battle that Krishna (the Lord) suspended time so they could have a conversation about yoga. This conversation became the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna wonders if it’s right so many should die just for “our greed for the pleasures of kingship”; he asks Krishna, “How could we be happy if we did?” (1.32-47).
But Krishna urges Arjuna to not be a coward: “Know what your duty is / and do it without hesitation” (2.31). Krishna urges Arjuna toward violence, so long as he does so without attaching himself to a particular outcome: “You have a right to your actions, / but never to your actions’ fruits” (2.47). When Arjuna is fully committed to the action, but gives no thought to success or failure of that action, “This equanimity is yoga” (2.48).
Commitment to the action, but surrendering the outcome, is an important part of my personal yoga practice. I strive in the action of asana, but I surrender that the pose will look however it looks.
Krishna continues that the way to achieve such equanimity is to perform all actions as worship to the Lord: “Good men are released from their sins / when they eat food offered in worship; / but the wicked devour their own evil / when they cook for themselves alone” (3.13). If Arjuna were to fight for his own glory, to aggrandize his own ego, he would not be practicing yoga; but if he offers his actions on the battle as a form of worship to the Lord, then he is following kriyā yoga.
If I fight, yearn, breathe into a virabhadrasana, I am practicing yoga; if I pop into a the same pose but my intention is only to get a quick Instagram shot that will increase my likes, I am not practicing yoga.
I am interested in the ethics of violence because that’s when stakes are highest. And what I conclude is this:
I admire the purity of Richard’s violence against the lion. He takes time to prepare, he practices self-discipline. The lion is not to blame for attacking Richard and it’s not fair the lion should die. And yet, there’s a kind of courage in Richard’s single action and in the way he uses this moment not to escape for himself but to, I would argue, send a message to the King about what kind of warrior he is and, by extension, are the people he represents. We can’t know, but to me this feels like devotion. Additionally, the calculus is simple: one will live and one will die. The lion’s nature precludes any chance for Richard to practice ahimsa: either Richard fights the lion or he allows himself to be killed, there’s no ahimsa either way.
Arjuna, on the other hand, is faced with a very different calculus. He asks Krishna why he shouldn’t surrender himself to be killed, thereby saving the lives of countless men on both sides. How is that not a compelling argument, ethically (if not politically) speaking? Krishna has so much to say on the subject of how to live throughout the Bhagavad Gita that is wise and compelling. And yet, on the subject of when violence is warranted I find him dreadfully wanting. Arjuna says he can’t blame his enemies for their evil and aggression (just as Richard can’t blame the lion) because they are made ignorant by their greed. Is that not a reason to try for dialogue and diplomacy? For mutual understanding and empathy? But instead Krishna urges Arjuna to focus on his duty as a warrior, on the fact that the dead will be reincarnated anyway, and on how embarrassed Arjuna would be if he were to lay down his arms: “And your enemies will sneer and mock you: / ‘The mighty Arjuna, that brave man— / he slunk from the field like a dog’ ” (2.36). Wait, what? Fear of embarrassment, is that a reason to kill? I cannot think so.
Yoga is often seen as recommending a kind of withdrawal from the world. It can be perceived as promoting a path toward detachment from things and from people.
This is not my experience with the practice. My experience is that when it’s time to fight, we fight. And when it’s time to rest, we rest. But we cannot discern when it’s the right time for what unless we practice self-discipline, study, and devotion. We have to learn to meet ourselves where we are.
I think, in the moment Richard ripped out the lion’s heart, he did that.
I think, on the battlefield, Krishna does a disservice to Arjuna by not probing him more deeply on his intentions and by not guiding him toward wisdom and an attitude of compassion as he wrestles with this specific choice of whether to fight or whether to seek another way. Krishna says meditation is important; and yet he never urges Arjuna to meditate in order to reveal “right knowledge” (I.7) as it applies to this battle.
The Bhagavad Gita offers much in terms of living a life of equanimity. But it offers far too little on the subject of doing so from a place of personal strength, self-discernment, and ethical commitment.
In other words, it doesn’t come from the heart.