In the Mahabharata, Yudhisthira has a dream…
He, his brothers and their wife Draupadi, and his faithful dog are walking through the north, over a “great desert of salt and white sand beyond the Himalaya, where the sun’s rays had sucked up every drop of water.” One by one his brothers collapse and die, as does Draupadi. Only Yudhisthira and his dog are left. Indra (the Lord of Heaven) appears from above in his chariot and invites Yudhisthira aboard to ascend to heaven with him. Yudhisthira refuses to go without his dog, who has been faithful and stayed with him through the arduous journey. Indra tells him “there is no place for dogs in heaven. It cannot be.” Yudhisthira replies “It cannot be otherwise”. Indra is outraged – how can you give up heaven for a measly dog? Immortality, prosperity, and happiness for a dirty animal? Yudhisthira says “This dog has been companion, protector, friend. I will stay near him." And he does.
The little dog in our story was the truest picture of loyalty – he stayed with Yudhisthira, supported him while all those around him fell, and was deserving of his devotion. Dogs are almost without exception completely faithful to their owners, and so give us a beautiful model of devotion. Really, I know a lot of people who would rank their dog a better friend than many of their human ones!
My son has a "fair-weather friend" and it is so painful to watch as a parent. We have lots of conversations around our dinner table about loyalty as a result. We talk about the need for loyalty from both sides in a friendship, which (in kid terms) means being the same friend even when someone or something “better” comes along. (Yudhisthira knew this innately – my son’s friend, not so much.) The truest friends are the ones who, when faced with the promises of heaven, still choose to stay steady by our side regardless. The ones who put their own comforts aside in service of friendship and goodwill. The ones who do that not to win our favor, but because it is in their heart to do so.
The word yoga itself means “yoke”. So really, yoga practice itself is a practice of loyalty. When we cultivate loyalty we become reliable, dependable, and steady, so we can more easily recognize our dharma or path. When we know our path we have an avenue for expansion and growth and we contribute more meaningfully to our world and the world around us. When we are loyal to our hearts we affirm our innate value and holiness. It is an act of deep honoring of who we are at our very essence.
The way this plays out on our mats is of course through our poses. We can always choose an easier variation, the one we can “perform” more beautifully - but does that move us forward? If we can stay committed, loyal to the pose we are working on even when we can’t quite do it yet, or when it is really challenging, that’s when we grow. When we are loyal to our bodies, there is a greater capacity for expansion because there is an innate faith that we will stay within the safe parameters for growth. Even on a subconscious & energetic level loyalty affirms faith.
In the end of the dream, Yudhisthira resists every temptation to leave the little dog and look out for himself – he refuses Indra and chooses to stay in the Earthly realm, choosing loyalty over the gifts of heaven. Just as he affirms this decision, Indra, looking behind him, drops to one knee and bows. Yudhisthira turns around in surprise to see that the little dog has transformed into his father, the God Dharma. Dharma says “Blessings to you, as a dog I followed you across this desert. You have compassion for all creatures and that is not weak but strong, and what you believe in you have defended to heaven’s gate.”
Sometimes the gifts of loyalty aren’t always clear. Hopefully at some point we have that dog-becomes-God moment and it does, but that is not always the case (at least 10 times while I was typing this I mistyped the word dog as god...hmmm). In the end it doesn’t matter if we are committed to a dog or (a) God, a person or an animal, a job or a hobby – the act of devotion in and of itself is holy and worthy of blessing.
Off the mat:
What are you loyal to? What do you “yoga” with? Is it/him/her deserving of your faith and commitment?
Are there aspects of your life that you could commit to more fully? What avenues do they provide for personal growth in spite of sacrifices it might also require?
On the mat:
Be loyal to the pose you are holding – don’t rush out of it because it’s not the prettiest one you can do. Or if it is, explore how you can deepen it even further. Be loyal to your body by honoring and respecting it’s boundaries and yet at the same time pushing those boundaries to expand with every breath.