Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Yoga and Activism: Be the Change!

Reading through a recent issue of a popular yoga magazine, I was struck by the overwhelming focus on self-nourishment and self-“improvement.” Primarily focused on the sale of yoga clothing, dietary supplements, health foods, and yoga vacations and retreats, the periodical’s whole emphasis was almost exclusively on buying things that would supposedly lead to a healthier, happier, more wholesome self.

This, of course, is nothing new, but in light of a speech I had just read by The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it gave me pause as I realized exactly what was missing from the perspective offered in the magazine.

Dr. King said, “Life’s persistent and most urgent question is ‘What are you doing for others?’”

Certainly, tending to one’s self is crucial to being able to serve others. Nourishing one’s self, whether with healthy food and healing herbs, a yoga asana class, or a meditation retreat, can help bring one to a place of greater balance from which she or he can more effectively help others. When we give a lot of energy to others, but don’t take care of ourselves, we can easily “burn out.” For many, the practice of yoga can be an opportunity to replenish our own stores of energy so that we can continue to offer our work out in the world in a sustainable way.

However, it is exactly this reciprocity, this exchange of nourishment, this “doing for others,” that is not readily apparent in the majority of main-stream yoga media in the United States (excepting a few charity-based non-profits).

It seems to me that this is a missed opportunity. Yoga offers us the ways and means to re-connect with the infinite source of power, energy, love, compassion, and peace that is within each one of us. However, recognizing it (and, for some, including myself, part of this process of recognition has certainly involved retreat centers, herbal supplements, and beautiful yoga clothes) is only half the equation.

As the Dalai Lama wrote, “It is not enough to be compassionate. You must also act.”

Nature (and therefore yoga) works in pulsations. This divine pulsation of the universe, which we can perceive in our breath, the tides of the ocean, the cycles of the seasons, etc, is, in Sanskrit, called Spanda (little did the sages of old know that this word would become the etymological root of the name for that modern and oh-so-desirable product: Spandex!)

In Anusara Yoga® asana practice we learn to draw inwards with Muscular Energy, and then radiate back outwards with Organic Energy, creating balanced action in the physical body that supports and sustains the pose. When we nourish ourselves through yoga and meditation, connecting to our inner power and realizing our true nature, and then offer this energy outwardly, in service, in seva, as action, this, too, is an expression of Spanda. (This action-based yoga is sometimes referred to as karma yoga.) But, if we stop after the part where we connect to ourselves, we are cutting off a natural flow, a relationship, a possibility. We haven’t completed the pulsation.

Once we remember the light, the power, the potential of who we are, the question remains:
What are you going to do about it?

Anusara Yoga teaches us to “Open to Grace” before beginning our yoga practice (or anything else, for that matter). To me, “Open to Grace” means to soften the boundaries of my individual “self” and expand my awareness to remember that I am connected to everything. I am part of the tantra, the web that weaves all life together and through which pulses the infinite, shimmering, creative power of freedom and possibility.

Dr. King said, “All life is inter-related… somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

What Dr. King is implying is that because of the tantric nature of reality, no one is truly free while others are still oppressed.

I believe that those of us who were born into circumstances of privilege (and at whom, by the way, the aforementioned yoga magazine ads are generally directed) because of skin color; gender or sexuality; socio-economic, cultural, or class background etc., that allow us to freely tap into and express that power we find within, have a responsibility to act.

For though all humans are all inherently free and possess the capacity to create a life of peace and joy, not all humans are living in circumstances that allow them to access and safely express this innate gift of freedom and creativity, power and possibility. Those who can, I believe, have an obligation to actively, outwardly work towards co-creating a world in which everyone can shine their unique light brilliantly without fear of persecution, violence, or hatred.

Taking action, speaking out, or standing up for someone else is not always comfortable or fun. Yet, for instance, as a white, college-educated person born into a financially secure family and living in Vermont, I can easily choose to avoid leaving my comfort zone. Alternately, a person living in Vermont who has brown skin, (let alone whether or not they have degrees, are straight, are middle or upper class, etc.) may experience varying degrees of discomfort all the time. As someone who has the immense privilege of getting choose when and how I step out of my comfort zone, I feel a responsibility to take actions, however humble they may seem, that help to ease the oppression and domination others feel.

This activism comes not from place of pity, nor from a place of wanting to accrue "good karma" points. It is a natural expression of the realization that, as Dr. King said, "we are tied in a single garment of destiny." Lilla Watson, who is an indigenous Australian activist, artist, and academic, wrote:

"If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."

Yoga invites us to remember and reconnect with the pure power of Love, Compassion, and Peace that is within everyone, everywhere. Once we recognize this brilliant potential to which we have access, we get to ask, “What will I do with all this power?” The next part of the journey is to take action in alignment with that same great power.

In Anusara Yoga we speak of “The Three A’s”: Attitude, Action, and Alignment. When we connect with the great attitude of love and compassion within, we can choose to act in alignment with that power to become, as Gandhi said, “the change we wish to see in the world.” We are given the opportunity to take our yoga practice out into the world, applying it to anything and everything. Yoga can become a form of activism.

It is important to remember that choosing not to act is also an action. As Frances Moore Lappe wrote, “The only choice we don’t have is whether to change the world.” Everything we choose to do and choose not to do effects everything else.

When we take the path of least resistance, choosing to not speak up in someone’s defense or choosing not to get involved in a particular movement or struggle, we are still wielding our power, albeit passively, to affect a change. And, as Dr King said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

On the other hand, sometimes, stillness, silence, and passive resistance (as in Gandhi's non-violent civil disobedience) are exactly the appropriate choice. We get to discern, to choose, situation by situation, constantly aware of our freedom and power of choice.

In our asana practice when we encounter resistance (such as pressing actively down against the floor with our hands in handstand), it leads to uprising. Resistance leads to upliftment. This is why today we stand on the shoulders of great activists like Dr. King, Watson, Gandhi, Lappe, and thousands of others.

It is easy to become overwhelmed by the many causes in today’s world. Just turning on the news can often be enough to send someone diving back into a yoga magazine full of images of happy people in pretty outfits sitting on comfy cushions. However, our actions do not have to be grand to be powerful. They can be small and subtle. Remember we are part of a web. As Frances Moore Lappe writes, “[This] is power flowing from our interdependence. We co-create one another, moment to moment. For me, our ‘imprintability’ is itself a source of hope. Our actions, and perhaps our mental states, register in others, so that we change anyone observing us. That’s power.”

When we take one, small, humble action towards justice, towards peace, towards freedom for all, it ripples out, changing everything.

For instance, one letter to a yoga magazine expressing dismay at the lack of models who are people of color could inspire hundreds of others to write similar letters. One email to a yoga clothing company asking them not to sell sweat-shop-made clothes could precipitate a whole shift in the company’s ethic.

Sometimes local actions, however small, can make the most profound differences. It can take a lot of courage to speak about an issue that matters to you to someone you know personally, who lives in your community. Sometimes it might be emotionally easier to send a check to help someone in another country who you will never meet. But those personal shifts that require direct engagement are often the most potent and powerful.

For example, an awareness-raising conversation with a yoga studio owner about cultural misappropriation could help to create some changes so that the studio feels more welcoming to people who are Hindu and may feel alienated by the non-Hindu co-opting of their tradition. One extra curtain in a yoga studio dressing room could make the space feel safer and more welcoming to a person who is trans-gendered. One “pay-what-you-can” yoga class offered a week could transform someone’s life for the better.

The possibilities are infinite. You get to choose.

Dr. King said, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve. You only need a heart full of Grace, a soul generated by Love.”

We all have a heart full of Grace and a soul generated by Love. This is the revelation of yoga. This is the gift of being human. Now, as Mary Oliver asks:

What will you do with your one, wild, and precious life?


  1. Thank you so much for taking the time to write such an amazing and thoughtful post, Lydia! Knowing that there are people in the yoga world in the US who are genuinely thinking about those who are often excluded from it (ie, transgender folks, working-class folks) and challenging privilege and oppression in its many forms (complacency, cultural appropriation, sweatshops/ consumerism) gives me so much hope and I'm sure deepens people's personal practices. Thank you for weaving together such vital concepts of reciprocity and action rippling out farther than we can ever know. Thank you for walking your talk, for living with integrity.

  2. Dear Lydia,
    I am so inspired by your words! I agree with your sentiment of action. It is so easy to live in the comfort zone, watching life go by as do the same things day in and day out, things that we are often doing unconsciously without truly choosing them. May your wise words inspire us all to stretch beyond our boundaries.

  3. Dear Lydia,
    Reading your blog was like finding a gem! Thank you for bringing such insight.
    AND I would love to hear more about your plant spirit yoga---I live in Northampton, so I'm not too far!