Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Satyagraha – The Power of Love & Truth

By Jivana Heyman

“A yoga that doesn’t hold social justice at its heart is not a complete or true yoga.” —Lakshmi Nair

The other day I posted this quote by Lakshmi Nair on my Instagram feed. She is a powerful voice in the yoga and social justice movement, and the creator of the Satya Yoga Cooperative in Denver, Colorado, which is one of the first yoga cooperatives for people of color.

The next morning, I woke up to a comment on the post that really got my attention. Someone had replied that people don’t come to yoga to hear about social justice, and that yoga teachers should stay in their lane and not talk about things they don’t know about.

I realized that this misunderstanding—that yoga and social justice aren’t related—is probably very common in our community. Yoga teachers spend the majority of their time and training focused on learning and teaching asana. They may receive a short training in yoga history and philosophy, but I wonder about the quality and depth of that portion of most 200-hour trainings. I imagine that most of those philosophy modules are not focused on the ways that contemporary yoga is so deeply intertwined with social justice.

I tried to respond to the post as best I could, but decided to expand on my thinking here. To me, the most important point is to recognize that just because yoga is taught as asana most of the time doesn’t make that correct or true. This is basic cultural appropriation—settling for a whittled-down version of the expansive yoga teachings—rather than being willing to explore their depth and mind-bending truths.

Yoga is a spiritual practice dedicated to transcending the limited aspects of the mind and opening the heart. It’s a discipline designed to remove suffering—our own as well as the suffering that we experience around us. Yoga teaches us how to see beyond the ignorance of our myopic self-importance so that we can experience the grandeur of our interconnectedness. It’s about seeing myself in you. In a sense, that is the definition of social justice, seeing ourselves in each other and working to create a society where all people are treated fairly and justly.

Consider the teachings of Gandhi, the Indian yoga master who ended the British colonization of India through nonviolent protests. He called his essential teaching “Satyagraha,” which means the power of truth. Gandhi explained that truth is love, and that love was the foundation for his non-violent activism. He explained, “True ahimsa (non-violence) should mean a complete freedom from ill-will and anger and hate and an overflowing love for all.”

Gandhi often referenced, and even translated, the Bhagavad Gita, which is the story of a just war, and perhaps the most important yoga scripture. The entire narrative of the Gita revolves around the questions that Arjuna, of the warrior caste and thereby duty-bound to defend his people, is struggling with regarding standing up and fighting against greed, selfishness, and evil. In response, Krishna is teaching Arjuna the way of yoga, a path of wisdom and service, so that he can stand up and fight. We need to be careful not to justify war with the teachings of the Gita, but we can see clearly in these teachings that questions of right action are at the heart of yoga.

Maybe more important than Krishna’s answers are Arjuna’s questions. He is in a process of self-reflection, svadhyaya, which is the essence of our practice, and the key to connecting yoga and social justice in our times. As Dianne Bondy explains in her article, Yoga, Race, and Culture, “We are missing a huge piece of what the yoga practice is intended to be. The yoga community, and more detrimentally the yoga industry as a whole, is missing the pinnacle niyama—svadhyaya, or self-study. Collectively, we are not practicing or celebrating the act of self-reflection and compassion that is self-study. Too many of us fail to acknowledge our biases, privileges, and limiting beliefs.”

Yoga begins when we step back from our own assumptions and begin to question our thinking, our attachments, and our cultural conditioning. Yoga creates space in our body, our breath, and our mind to allow for truth to emerge. When we relax the body and quiet the mind, our heart steps forward to speak the truth. We experience the power of that truth, Satyagraha, in directing our actions. We can ask ourselves how we have contributed to, or silently supported, a culture based on White Supremacy. We can ask ourselves how we may be overtly or covertly racist, ableist, or homophobic.

Arjuna begins the Gita with questions, a plea for help, and finally an openness to learn and grow: “My being is paralyzed by faint-heartedness. My mind discerns not duty. Hence I ask thee—tell me, I pray thee, in no uncertain language—wherein lies my good? I am thy disciple. Guide me. I seek refuge in thee.” (2:7, The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi)

As we consider how to move forward in a world that seems chaotic, where there is hatred, evil, and selfishness—yoga shows us the way. Yoga doesn’t offer a simple answer to resolve our political conflicts, but it shows the way, and that’s a way inward to connect with truth and love in our own heart.

Jivana Heyman
 is the founder of Accessible Yoga, co-owner of the Santa Barbara Yoga Center and an Integral Yoga Minister. With over twenty years of training and teaching in a traditional yoga lineage, Jivana has specialized in teaching the subtle practices of yoga: pranayama, meditation, as well as sharing yoga philosophy. His passion is making Yoga accessible to everyone. Accessible Yoga has grown into an international advocacy and education organization, and now offers two Conferences per year, trainings around the world, an ambassador program and online Network. Jivana has taught with the Dean Ornish Heart Disease Reversal Program through UCSF, California Pacific Medical Center’s Institute of Health and Healing, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. He has led over 40 Yoga teacher training programs over the past 16 years, and created the Accessible Yoga Training program in 2007. On December 3rd, 2015, Jivana taught Accessible Yoga at the United Nations in Geneva for their International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Jivana’s strengths are sharing esoteric and complex teaching in a readily accessible way, and applying the ancient teachings of Yoga to our day-to-day lives.

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much, Jivana, for so eloquently stating the case for yoga as a deeper, more philosophically-oriented and more justice-oriented practice than simply a physical practice. Svadyaya is indeed an extremely important part of the lifelong practice of a dedicated yoga practitioner and I so appreciate you making clear what this means.