Social and Environmental Advocacy, but Not Activism

Yoga — A Place for Social and Environmental Advocacy, but Not Activism

By Lisa Sullivan CYA-RYT200

Yoga may be perceived, at first glance, as simply a physical exercise class. However, more importantly, the practice of yoga creates space in the mind as well as the body and acts as a catalyst to finding an innate feeling of interconnectedness and belonging, or what I like to call “oneness”, and a realization of purpose. What appears initially as only a fun and lighthearted activity is, in fact, enriching and impactful on a deeper level, bringing people into alignment with their most authentic selves.  

As we slough off the layers of masks and expectations imposed on us by ourselves and the world, we realize that, as Rumi says, “the entire universe is inside of you”.  This sense of oneness brings with it a sense of responsibility to that which we belong and feel connected to. In this moment, yoga shifts from an internal practice to expand to the world around us, where it can reinforce values and bring awareness to social and environmental accountability. So with this connection in mind, what is the role of yoga in the world in terms of its relationship to social and environmental activism? Should the practice of yoga involve activism? Can yoga help bring balance to the challenges that we as a community face today? Where climate change, environmental destruction, political upheaval, war, social inequality, poverty and discrimination are issues that need to be addressed. 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 is a unique practice for each individual for the given moment. 

I believe the fundamental role of a yoga teacher is to hold space, which should be both safe and profound. As a teacher, I offer suggestions, with materials such as readings, and physical cues to help bring connection with the mind, body and soul. I want to help my students to listen to their bodies and not push themselves into a posture that brings pain. My aim is to create the space, the calm, the safety, the comfort, the acceptance for my students to do their own growth work wherever they are physically, emotionally or mentally. In this safe environment, it is my hope that students can form connections within themselves and build a practice of self-love and radical self-acceptance. When we are able to practice self-love and are open enough to truly know that everything is connected, practicing self-love becomes loving the universe. When one becomes more centered and aligned, the person begins to vibrate in harmony with the deep underlying tones of the earth and the lifeforce that links all living things together. I believe that, as we experience this, we will begin to act in a more compassionate way towards each other and the earth. As yogis, it is not our job to tell people how to live, but instead to help create space for them to be able to bring themselves into greater alignment with their true self.

The yogic principal of “Ahimsa” means “do no harm”. In practicing this we should strive for an environment where people would not feel fear of discrimination or alienation for not being or doing “enough” socially, politically or environmentally when showing up to a yoga class or in their personal practice. Yoga is the safe space to be, wherever you are in your life journey. During my training, I asked my teacher, how is it that a person can be conscious, while smoking? My teacher did not have an answer to this question, but held no judgment.  As an ex-smoker, I have given that greater thought; I did indulge in a cigarette during a stressful time following my training. Instead of succumbing to guilt, I allowed myself to use what I received from it, the attention to my breath and a sense of calm. While increased consciousness has led me to leave the tobacco use behind, I am aware of its place in my journey. Had I been pressured into leaving the yoga practice due to smoking, my path may have been different. By not passing judgment or creating expectations my teacher practiced ahimsa and allowed that space for growth. This is an essential part of yoga. It’s important for yoga to be an inclusive space, for people to feel that where ever they are in their life journey right now is okay. A person who is under pressure and anxiety should feel accepted in yoga, regardless if they are not capable, in their current state, to reduce consumerism and waste production to further environmental protection. Advocacy can be gentle and will get results, where activism can lead to feelings of separateness and thus disengagement.

In yoga practice, we should continue to strive for dispassion, or what Patanjali referred to as “conscious mastery of desire”, rather than introduce the disordering struggle that can be involved with activism. 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 that person feels 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, however, the fundamental role of yoga in the world should be to create space for each individual to be able to access a centered place within themselves. Yoga should not be directing what that place looks like for each individual or how long it should take for them to get there. The practice of yoga is unique for each individual in each moment.

The role of yoga in the world is to hold space, so people can access the best in themselves. Any more than that, any leaning into activism, risks causing harm and additional stress. We need to start with love, and that love needs to start with ourselves, and that is the work of yoga. When we see the best in ourselves, and love ourselves, we begin to love the world and all the beings in it. We feel love, we give love, we become love, and we cannot knowingly continue to act in an unloving way and retain that beautiful feeling we have found within ourselves. As we begin to see that we are of this world, we naturally take some responsibility for it. That is yoga, and that is how yoga naturally advocates for social justice and environmental protection. We are already doing it.

Namaste (the light in me acknowledges the light in each and every one of you!)

Lisa Sullivan

Lisa Sullivan

Lisa Sullivan