Isn’t Yoga About Peace and Love?
I’ve encountered this a lot lately. In response to our tumultuous political landscape, we've been speaking out on social media, in marches, and in protests, and are being asked to justify our positions in the context of our yoga practice. We've been met with the sometimes smug, sometimes well-intentioned question, “Isn’t yoga supposed to be about peace?” The insinuation is that we are in conflict with our yogic values when we stand up and speak out.
Ok, fine. Let's answer that. How do we balance activism with our yoga practice?
Let me stop here and issue a disclaimer. I’m writing this for my own edification, and perhaps to add to a productive exchange of ideas, not to impose my views on anyone else. What I write in this post will be my (hopefully) well-informed opinion, but opinion nonetheless. Please do not assume that I believe this is the only correct, or even the most correct, interpretation. I fully understand that for every intelligent, thoughtful person who exists, there will be at least that many different intelligent, thoughtful beliefs. So, if you keep reading, you do so under the agreement that you won’t take any differences of opinion as a personal insult, okay? Pinky swear? Alright, good. Here we go.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali outlines how we are to respond to people in different situations. Unfortunately for us, he doesn’t give us much wiggle room. Sutra 1.33 says that to stay on the path, we are to cultivate compassion for those who are suffering and neutrality towards those we perceive as misguided or bad. We are not to just treat them with kindness and dignity, but we are to feel it. We are to detach ourselves from even our most deeply held judgements and offer compassion indiscriminately. We are to understand that all anger and malice are born from suffering, and in light of that, soften our hearts and seek to understand. Patanjali is telling us that when we shut people out and label them as ill-intentioned or evil, we are no longer open to feel their suffering, and in turn, we become malicious ourselves. The cycle then continues and worsens, and we are no longer on the road to self-realization. No matter how justified we may feel, we are not acting in anyone's best interest when we act out of anger and judgement.
So, step one for the yogi activist is to get over ourselves and love without prejudice. Got it.
But are we stuck there in a prison a of non-judgement and inaction? Must we silently watch as atrocities are committed? Is meditation our only tool? Are we to ward off our oppressors and abusers using only our sick yoga moves as weapons?
I don't think so. In fact, I believe the opposite is true.
The yamas further outline how we are to interact with the world. Among other things, we are to be nonviolent, truthful, and benevolent. I take ahimsa (non-violence) to mean that not only am I personally obligated to do no harm, but that I am further obligated to reduce harm where I can. Same goes with all the yamas. When does inaction become complicity? If I see a dog walking down the road, I get out of my car and take it to safety. I wouldn't just hop into down dog, say a chant, and hope for the best. If I see someone robbing a bank, I don’t sit in lotus and meditate, I call the police! If I see a man elected to the highest office in the world who openly professes to grabbing women by their privates without asking, you best believe I’m going to march in the streets. I believe my duty is to act within my power to stop that violent, degrading behavior from being normalized.
In my view, which I believe is supported by not just the Yoga Sutras, but also other books of wisdom, we are called to be compassionate, but we are also called to duty. There are countless other Sutras that discuss right knowledge, humility, and self-reflection, and all of that must be considered as well. We can’t just blindly insist things go our way all the time. We must be mindful and believe with all our hearts that we are acting in accordance to our dharma. But when you believe you are truly acting for the benefit of others and can make real change for good, I believe it is our obligation. We must do so from a place of complete non-judgement and compassion for all involved, but we must do it nonetheless.
So, yogis, go ahead and fight like mad, just do it nicely.
Peace and Love,