Yoga as Spiritual Activism
Is Activism a natural outgrowth of yoga? Isn’t yoga all about focusing inward?
When journalists ask me what my message is or what I am teaching, I reply: “Vegetarianism, environmentalism and the need to take political action.” This response is generally met with bewilderment and another question like, “What are the physical benefits of yoga?” I like to answer, “What could be more physical than what you eat, where you live, and what kind of world you share with others?”
I believe that the growing popularity of yoga at this time of global transformation and overall shift in consciousness is not a coincidence. A yogi, by definition, is someone who strives to live harmoniously with the earth. Through that relationship the yogi seeks to purify his or her karmas so that enlightenment arises. Enlightenment is a state in which “Oneness of being” is realized, the interconnection of all beings and things in our world--yoga teaches that we are inseparably woven into the great web of life, matter, and cosmic space.
We are responsible for the health and well being of our world. But even though it seems that the world needs us more than ever before, it is actually we who need the world for our own salvation--not only as physical beings who require air and water and nutrition, but also in a metaphysical sense. Mother Nature does not require us for her existence, but we need her: this earth provides us with life, and, according to yoga teachings, life gives us the opportunity for enlightenment by giving us the means to work out our past karmas.
Karma means action, not just outer-directed action but thoughts and speech as well. Our lives are made up of actions. We never act alone; all of our actions affect others. At the end of the day, or at the end of our life, the only thing any of us really ‘has’ is our effect upon others. How we treat others determines how others treat us; how others treat us influences how we see ourselves; how we see ourselves determines who we are.
Yoga teaches us that there is no “out there” versus an “in here”. Everything we see comes from inside of us, and we create the world in which we live. Our current reality is a projection of our inner reality, which comes from our past actions, derived from how we treat others. If we want our world to change and heal, we must start seeing things differently, and act in a manner that will bring about global health and harmony.
We are in the midst of a planetary crisis that is different from all past crises: unconscious human activity now threatens the integrity of the biosphere itself. Most human beings do not realize this, nor do they understand that we are the ones causing this crisis. Even those who are aware struggle with the sense of not knowing what do do to help undo the damage.
Luckily, the practices of yoga provide us with very practical skills to enable us to dismantle our present culture, a culture of dis-ease, based upon the exploitation of the earth. If our culture had a mission statement it would seem to be: “The earth belongs to us.” It is easier to harm or exploit another being or entity if you see them as disconnected from you, as your possession rather than an extension of your being. This self-centered way of perceiving and treating the earth has led to a global crisis that threatens the very possibility of future life on this planet for all beings.
A yogi seeks self-realization through the perfection of action: a perfect act is a selfless one. By living in an other-centered way rather than a self-centered way, the yogi lives harmoniously with the earth, with all beings and things, and ultimately with her self. To the yogi, the earth is the great mother or the Goddess, who is also the God in us. Yogis don’t seek to escape the world, but rather to go deeper into the world, dissolving illusions of separateness and perceiving the physical earth as one’s greater heart.
In yoga this radical way of thinking and seeing is embodied in the practices of asana (steady seat) and ahimsa (non-harming). Both of these practices lead us to political activism. They change our approach to life from asking “How can the earth benefit us?” to “How can we benefit the earth?”
In the second chapter of his renowned Yoga Sutras, a two-thousand year-old text, the sage Patanjali writes on the practical application of yoga techniques, offering the following sutra, or thread: sthira sukham asanam (YS II.46):
“The connection to the earth should be steady and joyful. Our relationships with all beings and things should be mutually beneficial if we ourselves desire happiness and liberation from sufferings. Our bodies are made up of all of our karmas from countless lifetimes; all of the actions from our past relationships with others. Through the practice of asana one can purify their past karmas.”
In Sanskrit Sthira means ‘steady; stable’. Sukham means ‘easy; joyful; comfortable’; and Asana means ‘seat’. Your seat refers to your connection to the earth, to all beings and things on this planet. Patanjali is saying here that to attain Yoga your connection or your relationship to the earth, and all of the beings that comprise it, should be steady and joyful. For a relationship to be steady and joyful it must be mutually beneficial. A one sided relationship based on the selfish needs of an individual will not move one toward yoga or the realization of the oneness of being. As we are now realizing on a global scale, a one-sided relationship based on fulfilling the selfish desires of an individual cannot sustain the whole body politic.
Our bodies are made up of all of our karmas from countless lifetimes, including all of the actions from our past relationships with others. Through the practice of asana we can purify our past karmas and create a harmonious relationship to Mother Earth. By connecting to the earth and creating a steady relationship, we not only create happiness in the world, we create happiness in ourselves.
The easiest way to uplift our own life is to uplift the lives of others. One more way that Patanjali gives us to uplift the lives of others is through the practice of ahimsa, which means non-harming. If we want to be happy than we must not cause unhappiness to others, or the planet. How we treat others will determine how others treat us. Patanjali says, ahimsa pratisthayam tat sannidhau vaira tyagah YS II.35, which translates as: When we do not hurt others, others will not hurt us. Kindness toward others is the most powerful political act that we can perform on a daily basis.
These two yogic principles of ahimsa and asana lead us toward perfection of action, which is said to be enlightenment itself. A perfect act is a selfless one. Yoga practices help us to transcend selfish needs in order to be of service to the whole. Yoga teaches us how to get free of fears that contribute to violence, greed, and selfish tendencies.
Some people may argue that spirituality and politics don’t mix, and if you are a spiritual person you should disassociate yourself from politics. But the fact is we can’t help but be political. Each of our actions, whether of physical deeds, words, or even thoughts, affects everyone all the time. To take one example, our daily eating habits either support local organic farms and socially conscious enterprises or they create profit for horrific industries of slaughterhouses and genetically engineered produce. The work that we choose to do can contribute to other peoples’ liberation or their suffering. If we continually act in a way that takes into consideration the wellbeing of the whole – the people and animals that share our neighborhood, community, town, city, country and planet – we will have become yogic activists.
If we look at the current world situation from a karmic perspective, we can see that the planetary crisis offers us a great opportunity to purify our karma through right action in the world. Unfortunately, many people have given into cynicism or despair. They look at the global situation and lament the absence of good leaders, hoping to find someone they can follow – a Martin Luther King, Gandhi, or Mother Theresa. Why do they look outside themselves for direction? Yoga practice should teach us inner strength, self-knowledge, and self-mastery. When we have attained these qualities, we don’t need to wait for anyone to lead us. We can find the courage to take responsibility for the planetary situation on our own. When we take this on as yogic activists, we step into a great destiny.