Joanne Preece, Editor
Practicing Yoga: From the Private to the Public
In this issue of Canadian Yogi, we are looking at the role of yoga in the world at large. When faced with today’s challenges — climate change and environmental destruction, political upheaval and war, social inequity, poverty and discrimination (to name just a few) — we asked what role can yoga play; what can or should a yogi do?
The responses we received to these questions were wide ranging. Some of our authors see yoga as a private practice, at most a practice that allows a yogi to lead by example, while others see yoga as a force for building community or bringing about change on a much wider scale. From change starting from within to living an exemplary lifestyle, to using yoga to teach and guide others or to bring wholeness back to our communities, to well thought out advocacy or activism (along with concrete plans for action), our authors’ suggestions reflect the spectrum of opinions at play in the yoga world.
Change Starts from Within
A number of writers saw yoga as essentially a private practice for individual spiritual development. Often, they believed that the change occurring in themselves would spill over into the wider world. In her article Find Balance in a World of Uncertainty, Heather-Cairns-Hodgson, eloquently summarizes the yogic principle of change starting with the self and looks at where and how this change can lead us:
From a place of grounded awareness and healthy intuition, rather than from a space of mental chaos, overwhelm and reaction, become the best, most radiant version of you. If we each show up for ourselves in this way, this one shift alone can expand our positive impact on the world around us and within us. When you bring your own being into full balance... you begin to “know thyself”. This is where you can get clear on your dharma — your life’s purpose and how you specifically can show up in the world... I feel that the best thing we can do for our communities and our planet is to continually improve on who we are. Not from a place of “not good enough”, but from a place of up-levelling.
From the foundation of personal practice, arise qualities such as insight, awareness, presence, compassion and love which inform the direction of many of our articles. In particular, awareness and compassion are often central to the articles advocating engagement or activism.
In Be Yoga, Claire Gordon sees being present and aware as key to understanding and wise action, “Being yoga means striving to live each moment with presence, which can, with practice, result in moving through the world with complete awareness of yourself and your actions. It grants the ability to respond wisely and with purpose. It means being able to listen fully, which leads to understanding”.
Our writers view awareness in a variety of ways, including present moment awareness or mindfulness to actively investigating or researching the background to our present-day problems and the potential solutions we could pursue. In all cases, it is awareness that allows us to act skillfully.
Helen Maupin in Awareness — A Critical Path to Foundation, Flow and Freedom, sees awareness as key to healing both the inner and outer worlds: “[Awareness] is fundamental to shifting our personal imbalances (physical and mental illness) and global imbalances (climate change, poverty, war, etc.). ‘Where attention goes, energy flows.’... Enlightenment has present moment awareness at its essence. In fact, they are one and the same”.
Brett Wade goes farther in What Can Yoga Offer to Assist the Global Challenges of this Era? stating, “All change begins with having an awareness and then being optimistic about the ability to make change... Once we have awareness on an issue, we must believe we can make a change. Our minds create reality. If we believe everything is hopeless, we may start leaning towards nihilism and then we are in serious trouble.”
Love and Compassion
Love and compassion are qualities we speak about frequently within the yoga community. But what do we really mean by love or compassion? Do we see them as emotional responses or as actions? Many of our writers grapple with these questions and, if they determine that love or compassion must be active, look at how they manifest.
Mahan Khalsa, in The Path of Ahimisa, says, “Cultivating universal love and compassion for myself and all beings strengthens a sense of ethical, moral and societal responsibility”.
And, while Lisa Sullivan sees yoga primarily as a way for people to access the “centered place within themselves”, she sees this centering as naturally developing not only self-love but love for the world beyond ourselves:
My belief is, with the growth of a personal practice, self-love transitions into universal love. This love, and the space it creates, is a natural platform for social and environmental advocacy, however, there should not be any expectations for how that manifests in each individual...
— Yoga: A Place for Social and Environmental Advocacy, but Not Activism
Other writers link compassion and love to an active role in lessening the suffering of others:
When we truly immerse ourselves in the practice of yoga, we become attuned and sensitive to humanity and the planet as a whole. Many are called to serve through karmic actions, realizing that as they serve others through love they are contributing to the equilibrium of wellness and happiness of the whole. To ease the suffering of the individual is to ease the suffering of the collective.
Some see taking small daily steps to ease such suffering as enough, believing that the cumulative effect of these steps can bring about positive change.
Our minds can create powerful positive and negative influences in ourselves and in others. Do my thoughts, words and deeds create suffering or lessen it? ...The pond was all around me. Accepting that challenging issues are part of the human condition, I decided my path would focus on lessening suffering where and when I saw it. My best attempts are enough. Gathering pebbles and inviting others to gather their pebbles, we toss them into the ponds together, freeing them to sink into the depths while watching the ripple effect grow into waves.
All of our writers see embodying yogic qualities and being an example to others as the way to bring about positive change. As Mahan Khalsa says, “it is time for us to be living embodiments of kindness, peace, health and happiness. Every moment, we have this opportunity. Sharing inspiring stories, messages and quotes on social media and in-person helps to shine light into the world and counter the mass darkness and destruction present at this time”.
The Role of Ethics
Also underpinning many of the articles is the foundation of the yamas (yogic ethics). In One Life, One Practice, One Breath, Roxanna Gumiela sees the yamas as agents for change. “If our actions and our words are based in ahimsa, (nonviolence), as well as the other yamas, which include satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (non-excess) and aparigraha (non-possessiveness or non-greed), we pass on to others the benefits and the beauty that yoga can bring to life.” Or, as Lilian Najm, Role of Yoga says, “finding solutions to problems requires creativity and a new way of thinking… for yogis, it is a way of thinking based on yoga’s ethical guide to living — the yamas and niyamas — adapted to the modern world”.
Brett Wade calls for the application of the yamas throughout our society including in the political arena. He asserts that “activism to replace narcissistic leaders with yamic leadership is important but also to become yamic leaders ourselves and in areas which we identify as problems, create awareness and make change”.
A Focus on Community
While some of our writers see their teaching as a way to help people, individually, evolve through yoga, others see yoga as having a broader role, that of building healthier communities. Gopala Amir Yaffa, founder of Rainbow Yoga, says:
I found the more “traditional” yoga to be isolating with its focus on the individual and its philosophy of negating the world. So, my new yoga was a rebellion against what I found constricting within that old yoga world…Now, with our latest project, the Rainbow Centre, we are attempting to expand and reach farther than ever before using yoga as a tool for social evolution.
The Centre focuses on building community and teaching kindness.
Natalie Forrest builds on this theme when she says that activism has arisen because there is “something broken in our community”. In Should Yoga Be a Part of Activism? she states:
There’s a lack of integrity (when I use the word integrity here, I am referencing the original meaning of the word: wholeness*). Activism is the acknowledgment and the actions of trying to bring a whole-ness back to our community… It’s the deep realization that we can, and do, affect each other…This deep responsibility is both heavy and uplifting as we have to be willing to acknowledge and see the trespasses that we as individuals, and as a larger society, have made against other members of our community. This is a hard reckoning for those who are still entangled in and identified with the mind stuff. Yoga asks us to come from a place of compassion and connection; not because we fear unearthly consequences but because we have felt the deep responsibility of being a part of the same wholeness — of being in community.
The most optimistic statement on the importance of building healthy, nourishing communities comes from Maya Machawe, Matrix Universe: “If yogis —from all over the world — unite together in building stronger communities with a core intention to help humanity, their work would certainly make an immeasurable difference”. She (as well as some of our other writers) shares examples of how yogis or yogic principles have helped to bring about positive change on the world stage.
This emphasis on community that appears in a number of our articles is grounded in the non-dualist yogic worldview where all things are interconnected. “With that oneness comes a deeper understanding of connection, of community, and it’s not an easy understanding. Because we are all part of something larger than ourselves, a wholeness that goes beyond just ourselves, we are all in community. It’s the deep realization that we can, and do, affect each other.” (Natalie Forrest)
Lisa Sullivan’s considered observation is that this worldview naturally develops concern for people and things beyond ourselves:
As our practice grows and we begin to see that part of ourselves resides in everything else and that a part of everything else resides in us, this interconnectedness naturally advocates for social justice and a healthy earth in a gentle manner. If a person attains a centered place and is in alignment with their truest, most authentic self, and they feel called to activism, then it may be possible that activism can be practiced in a yogic way, with dispassion, without struggle or too much attachment to the outcome. This is an area that deserves more thought and investigation…
Helen Maupin sees this as why we must work for change: “because we are collective social beings, as well as one in essence, our personal suffering and joy is intimately connected to all people and the planet. Suffice it to say, the sooner we all get active in “being the change we wish to see”, the sooner other people and the planet will respond in like kind. Loving kindness works!”
How Do We Act?
Well that depends who you ask. In Yoga Is Nothing but To Be, Yves Panneton calls for action at the most personal level while Krysta Close, in Unleashing Shanti on the World, voices the call for full-out social activism:
Yoga is to become who we are! — Yoga is about letting our potential bloom. It is not so much about achievements as much as skills. If I want to be a doctor but cannot for one reason or another, I can be a physiotherapist, a personal care attendant or a dedicated parent looking after a sick kid. What matters is to allow my caring nature to bloom. (Yves)
Apathy to the destructive imbalances around us will not shield us from their disastrous results. It is ok to not know how or where to begin. It is normal to feel overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the need for change that exists across the globe. Remember, you are not alone in thinking that we could be much closer to the incredible potential that our planet offers. How to begin: Find a cause; be open to new ways of thinking; research; decide what your activism looks like; take the leap. (Krysta)
The articles in this issue explore the full spectrum between these two perspectives. Some writers, like Brett Wade, even make specific suggestions as to where our attention can best be focused. He thinks “the modern-day yogi and yogini can make the most profound changes [by]: 1. Participation in peaceful protests against despotic leadership or/and 2. Helping those suffering from depression and anxiety by sharing the practices of yoga”.
This is just a brief overview of key themes that come out in this issue’s articles. Our writers have a lot to say. Read the articles. Let them percolate. Take some time to think about their viewpoints and ideas. How will your yoga manifest in our world?
Yoga is by nature holistic. Everything from all times, all places, all planes is connected. Everything is yoked. The concept of the “self” as distinct and separate is illusory. (When does air become my breath, food my body, another’s life my concern...?)
What this means, on a practical level, is that it’s when we start looking at the world in terms of “me” and “the other” (whether that is another person, another community, another country) or “me” as separate from nature that we start getting into trouble. Divisions like this can lead us to act only in our own interests, to view others or nature as something we can manipulate or dominate.
Yoga asks us to look at ourselves clearly, to understand that the “self” is conceptual, a story we have created that overlies our deeper being. At our deepest level we are completely connected to everything and everyone else. Harm anywhere in the web of life, harms all else, including ourselves.
When we stop setting ourselves apart and recognize our interconnectedness, that’s when we start to understand the web of our relationships and engage with the world around us in a more mindful and skillful way. Instead of being self-centered, acting only from self-concern, we start to act with compassion, with responsibility, ethically.
I believe that it’s not by chance that the yamas are the first limb of yoga. To even begin a spiritual practice requires guidelines for living that go beyond our own personal preferences and habits. We do not practice yoga in isolation but in this world, and the yamas tell us how to engage with our world, and all of its inhabitants, in a respectful, decent, supportive and sustainable way. Really, many of our problems have been brought about because we have become, globally, a people that do not act ethically.
Today, we need to return to the yamas. Originally, these five ethical precepts were expressed as restraints (non-harming/non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, non-excess, non-possessiveness).
Personally, I embrace the broader more active interpretations like those of Nischala Joy Devi in The Secret Power of Yoga:
For me, interpreting ahimsa as “reverence, love or compassion” brings life and action into the equation and is less parsimonious than just restraining oneself from harming another. When we talk about non-harming, what does that mean? Does it mean not performing an action that harms another person? Or does it include when we ignore another, perhaps leading to harm? How do we interpret non-stealing or non-excess in regards to the environment? In other words, I find clarity in seeing the yamas as something you should do, not just what you should not do. Act with compassion. Develop integrity. Be generous. Live with moderation. Feel grateful...
Eventually, as we embrace them and practice them, the yamas become part of who we are. Where ethical practice becomes complex is in the details. How do we determine what is non-harming when we are conditioned by our own experiences and culture? How do we determine non-harm in a world fraught with complexity?
This is where our personal yoga practice helps. Through it we can develop the insights and skills to navigate this quagmire. Daily practice, meditation, self-study — many of the tools of yoga — allow us to see and release habitual patterns, let go of attachments or aversions and become less reactive. We begin to understand how our personal desires and wants influence our behaviour. We begin to see the causes and effects of our actions. We become more sensitive to how we are in the world, how and why we make our choices. Yoga gives us a point of clarity from which we can view the world.
Using this insight, we can behave more attentively, more skillfully in our daily lives. Since all of our actions have an effect, we can start to truly consider the effect they will have in the world. Are our actions beneficial not just to ourselves, but to others and the world at large? Do they come from a ground of compassion? Do they contribute something positive? Do they ease suffering?
For me yoga is much more than a personal practice or a lifestyle. It’s about living a life that helps to create harmony in the messy, interconnected web of relationships that is our world. It shows us how to contribute to the “greater good”, how to work to alleviate the suffering of others, of our societies and of the planet. So, yes, for me yogic action (or activism) has a place in this damaged, troubled world.
© Joanne Preece 2019
Canadian Yogi is a forum for our members to exchange ideas and information. The articles published in Canadian Yogi represent the views of the writers and do not necessarily represent Canadian Yogi or the Canadian Yoga Alliance’s position.
Joanne Preece, Editor