God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!” – Katherine Lee Bates
A few weeks ago, I was in Colorado teaching at a yoga festival, and I’ve been trying to find a way to write about how amazing it was. Considering the current political climate and the recent hurricane and flooding in Texas, I feel it’s a trivial thing to talk about. The same day I was having a good yoga cry in Matt Giordano’s “Therapeutically Advance Your Practice” class, a protest resulting in the deaths of three people was happening in Charlottesville, Virginia. The same day I’m on Instagram talking about abyhasa and viaragya, thousands of people were stuck in a flood and losing their homes in Hurricane Harvey. People are right now evacuating the path of Hurricane Irma. It doesn’t seem right or appropriate to talk about yoga festivals, social media, or self-promotion at all, right now.
I notice my own tendency to want to retreat away from the news because it makes me feel worried or hopeless, and I feel guilty about it. Not everyone has the ability to turn a blind eye to this kind of suffering. I can turn off the news, but other people are very much living the news. So, I try to breathe and make room for feeling uncomfortable while staying informed, but I will admit I have a difficult time with it.
I have moments where I wonder if practicing Utthita Trikonasana has any real effect on the world. Do open hamstrings provide disaster relief? Is chanting, “Om Shanti,” going to magically write that letter to my senator for me? Is this all just some exercise in isolated, navel-gazing that I call life-changing?
I don’t talk about current events or politics in my classes. Most people hate it if you do. They come to yoga to get away from all of that. While, this escapism isn’t really the purpose of yoga, I get it. Who hasn’t had a shitty day at work or a fight with a loved one and walked out after a yoga class feeling better? While feeling better temporarily can make us keep coming back to our practice, it isn’t really the point of yoga. We practice to learn to abide in consciousness, to direct the mind. I’m unsure when we started thinking that meant we should feel good all the time. The “good vibes only” attitude can do more harm than good. It fosters this culture that is unable to hear anyone’s pain and incapable of basic empathy because it might put a damper on someone’s good day. While “focus on the positive” and “spread the love” can be intended to be kind, in this moment it seems like just another iteration of sticking your head in the sand.
The effects of yoga practice isn’t automatic external change. It is an internal, individual practice. Many of us feel the internal changes our practice brings, and we think, “Wouldn’t the world be better if everyone did this?” Yet, I think this is where we leave our yoga. We barely touch upon the surface of our own minds, and we turn away from it by thinking everyone else should get on board with our experience.
I still need my daily practice just to handle the news, and I’m not here to take anyone’s coping mechanisms away. Yet, I wonder if the solution to the problems in this country is truly more yoga. More Americans practice yoga in this country than ever have; yet, time and time again we have shown that we do not know our own minds: climate change and science denial is still here and we still elect corrupt politicians. Racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and sexism still exist, and we spend more time than ever with our heads down looking at a screen. We don’t need more people to study yoga. We need to be better practitioners of yoga. Open hamstrings, sweat, and microfiber moisture-wicking pants aren’t going to change the world, but knowing our own minds will. We have to be willing to open our eyes and truly see who we really are for yoga to have any impact, and it will not always feel good. It’s not going to feel like a supportive restorative class enveloping you in safety. It won’t even feel like a joyous, sweaty power flow. It will be scary. It will feel hopeless, enraging, and maybe even depressing. And those feelings are the precise moment where we can turn our suffering into opportunity for change in this country. Those are the moments where we can become aware of our own privilege and turn around and use it to serve others, to give voices to the unheard. The American yogi is here to stay if the billion dollar “yoga industrial complex” has anything to say about it, but if we don’t apply the lessons of our practice to our actual life, it is all for nothing.
It’s one thing to feel “all one” in the studio with similar looking, like-minded people, but to stand on the street with all religions, political beliefs, races, genders and feel that same “one-ness” is a completely different (and much harder) experience. Yet, I have to believe it can be done. Our practice has to change from being about self-empowerment to empathy for fellow human beings. We have to switch from just practicing for stress-relief to learning to build resilience for what’s in store. We must turn the quest for good feelings into the quest for right action.