Ain't Nuthin' But a Hound Dog
KOSHER SUTRA 'And [Moses] left Pharaoh in hot anger' (Exodus 11:8)
SOUL SOLUTION Defeat powerful negative emotions and achieve a state of peace.
BIBLIYOGA POSE Downward-facing dog
BODY BENEFITS Strengthen back, shoulders and legs.
I’ve just completed a delightful teaching tour of Canada. The scenery was exquisite, the people sophisticated, their demeanour warm and welcoming. It was the television programmes that were bewildering: they have a national sport which is like Dancing on Ice but involves assaulting people with sticks in a move called ‘cross-checking’ (in England we just call it ‘sh*t-kicking/beating’. I switched TV channels to find a hunting programme where proud nationalists were shooting innocent stags before trundling off with still-warm velvety antlers attached to their backpacks and a 5lb slab of fresh meat in the freezer bag. When the rifle adverts began (“buy now and get 10 free rounds of ammo!”) I flicked programmes only to be confronted with the fastest-growing billion-dollar sport that the USA is bestowing to the civilised world: The Ultimate Fighting Championship. At least this one has no pretence: men try to kill one another, the best fighter wins and the most entertaining brawlers get very rich. Who ever said that Colliseum bloodsports died with the final Caesar?
Our Kosher Sutra is perplexing. Moses gets angry. It doesn’t say what happens next, but I would like to conjecture a theory: he deals with the emotion and gets over it. There are bigger things on his mind, like the minor task of freeing a nation of slaves, splitting a vast body of water and marching them to freedom via a few unexpected pitstops and skirmishes with hostile tribes. Moses isn’t always immune from acting out of anger but on this occasion, he succeeds.
The whole ‘Peace-and-Love’ shtick has become the default modus operandi for the yoga world, but let’s face it – the whole thing is a bit sickly sweet. Almost nobody is acknowledging the thread of violence that runs beneath the surface of current asana (posture) practice. The Bhagavad Gita, a yoga classic, tells of people who are fighting one another in a battle to the death and how the protagonist Prince Arjuna has to face his own family members in the ultimate fight. Where else do you think Warrior Pose comes from? These guys are hardly warriors of love and the battlefield gets messy. The difference is that although there is fighting, it isn’t out of anger but rather out of a sense of dharma or Divine Purpose. When Ecclesiastes says that there is ‘a time for war’*, it is acknowledging that the war is underlined with a sense of peacefulness, in that sometimes there is a time to fight but it is to achieve a purpose. Although one of my friends recently quoted the immortal line which I will misquote here for purposes of modesty: Fighting for peace is like having sex in order to become a virgin. But we get the gist of both the Gita and Ecclesiastes: peace is ideal, war has its place, but acting out of anger is never an option.
Rabbinic literature periodically warns against the dangers of being overcome with anger, even going so far as to say that an angry person is actually an idolater**, partially because they are effectively worshipping the whims of their own ego rather than accepting that the moment they are experiencing, however challenging it might be, is part of the divine plan.
How can we overcome anger when we feel it? Perhaps there is a clue in the verses preceding the description of Moses’ anger. Our Kosher Sutra comes on the back of a curious phrase describing the ways that the Jews left Egypt: “that dogs will not sharpen their teeth”…in other words, animals that are accustomed to becoming angry and acting on their anger were suddenly able to overcome their own nature. Dogs bark, dogs react – that’s their job, they are dogs.
They say that ‘leopards can’t change their spots’, but is the metaphor really true? My meditation teacher Dr Gabe Goldman, author of Guide for the Spiritually Perplexed: A Jewish Meditation Primer has written a thoughtful treatise on the creatures;
“We [think that we] made dogs into “man’s best friend.” What a backward way of understanding what happened. In reality, dogs made man into “dogs’ best friend.” Dogs adapted. They learned to live with people. They learned to behave in ways that satisfied human needs for companionship and protection. Dogs learned not to bite the hand that feeds them and, instead, to lick the face. They learned to bark when someone approaches whether or not they are prepared to follow up on their bark. They learned to lie beside us when we do not feel well, to guide us if we cannot see and to cheer us up when we feel depressed. In short, the hardwiring in dogs has dramatically changed because of their interaction with people.
I am inclined to believe that dogs which go into burning buildings to save people are not exercising free will but rather are demonstrating the power of evolutionary forces to change their hardwiring. That is, I suspect the new hardwiring in these dogs makes it impossible for them to do anything but go back into the burning building!“_***
Which yoga posture would be the best to practice in order to reduce our ego and overcome strong negative emotions? Downward Dog…of course. As a reminder, here are the pointers for the pose:
i. Ensure your hands and feet are hip width apart.
ii. Aim to get your body in the shape of an upside-down letter ‘V’.
iii. Tuck in your abdomen, engage your thigh muscles and rotate your shoulders outwards, thus elongating your neck.
iv. Inhale and exhale through your nostrils.
v. Focus your eyes on your navel (the only officially-sanctioned time for navel-gazing).
As we hold the posture for longer periods of time we can feel the strain and it’s not inconceivable that the muscles on your hands and legs might shake a little. This can be taken as a positive signal because it shows that you are working, and if it all becomes too much then the ground isn’t far away.
We’ve all felt overwhelmed by tough emotions at various times, but anger is one of the most challenging of them all. Even if you’re feeling great and are accustomed to a peaceful disposition, try the Downward Dog for a good few minutes – or as long as you can last – and you’ll begin to experience the wonders of your own inner strength, training sheer willpower to overcome your ego, and you’ll be even more powerful than you already are.
Shalom V’Ahava y’all,
**One who tears his clothes, breaks his utensils, and destroys his money in his rage should be in your eyes as one who commits idolatry" (Shabbos 105b).
*** Dr Gabe Goldman, from an unpublished paper.