I’ve been studying yoga on a deep level for 10 years, which in the grand scheme of things is hardly any time at all. And while the practice has transformed almost every aspect of my life in some way or another, I know I’m still very much a beginner. There are so many texts I’ve yet to study. And so many practices I’ve yet to experience. I’ll never get to them all. But I’ve gone deep enough to understand something important. I know that yoga is a practice that’s eventually going to ask everything of me. Making a commitment to the practice of yoga is making a commitment to uncover the root of every aspect of our being.
The practice of yoga doesn’t allow us to hide from anything.
As I’ve shared before, Swami Rama told my teacher that the whole goal of yoga is to surface our conditioning so that we can be free of it. Yoga is about freedom. It’s a powerfully transformative practice leading toward union and liberation. But only if we engage it fully. Only if we fight the cultures of white supremacy and capitalism that work to tame the power of yoga and commodify it to the point of meaninglessness. Only if we fight the ways in which we’ve internalized toxic individualism and taken up yoga as a practice designed for nothing more than making us feel good.
We live—and participate—in an unjust world in deep need of union and liberation. Yoga can help us move in this direction. But only if we’re willing to get uncomfortable.
Building our capacity for discomfort is an act of love. As Rev. angel Kyodo williams says, “Love and Justice are not two.” I understand this to mean that we can’t claim love unless, as the biblical prophet Micah would say: We do justice. Working to do justice in the context of complicated, long standing, deeply ingrained systems of oppression and privilege is overwhelming difficult. And until we’re ready to reach inside our own body and mind and pull the ingrained dis-ease of these systems up and out into the light of day, we’ll remain stuck. Because, to finish Rev. angel’s quote: “Without inner change, there can be no outer change. Without collective change, no change matters.” Rev. angel’s wise words remind us that we must do our own inner work. But we can’t do it in isolation. Our inner work is not for ourselves alone. It must lead us toward the outer work of collective change—of collective care.
Yoga teacher Donna Farhi has said that our practice is nothing more than becoming a human being. What does it mean to try and become a human being in the midst of complicated, long standing, deeply ingrained systems of oppression and privilege? This is a big question. But if our practice is to be about liberation, then this question needs to be at the heart of our practice.
Part of recovering our humanity is learning, or re-learning, to listen to the wise voice of our body—it’s learning to recognize the felt sense of our intuition. So let’s pause for a moment and feel our way inward. As you’re listening to my words, what’s happening in your body? If you’d like, you can close your eyes here. Begin to direct your vision inward. What do you feel? What’s happening in your jaw? In your neck? Do you need to move or wiggle or stretch? What’s happening in your belly? In your back? In your heart? What emotions are present in this moment? And what do these emotions feel like?
What’s happening in your breath? Let your mind feel into the rhythm of your body being breathed. Feel the inhale as it enters your nostrils and moves down into the lungs. Pause here a moment and feel the expansion of your ribcage. And then slowly release the breath and feel the action of the lungs being emptied. Pause here and feel the moment of stillness before the next breath begins. Take a moment to rest with the feeling of breath moving in and out of your body.
In the Yoga Sutra—a text I’ve read almost everyday for a decade—we’re offered a series of teachings about right relationship that undergird the entire path of practice. It’s important to understand that yoga practice begins with ethical behavior. These teachings on right relationship can support us as we step more deeply into the work of becoming a human being, into the work of increasing our capacity for discomfort so that we can increase our capacity for love.
The 1st limb of yoga practice is Yama or moral restraint. There are five yama-s and they describe how we are to live in right relationship with society. Our ancient teacher, the great sage Patanjali, is uncharacteristically emphatic about the importance of these teachings. In fact, he calls them the mahā-vratam—the Great Vow. In sutra 2.31, we’re told that this vow—this great vow—is universal. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you were born, what era you live in, or what circumstances you’re facing, if you commit yourself to the practice of yoga, you’re expected to commit yourself to this Great Vow—to this code of conduct.
As yogi’s we’re expected to avoid causing harm of any kind, to speak only of true things, not to steal, to keep our sexual energy in check, and to live simply, which means we don’t hoard wealth or possessions.
Like I said, the practice of yoga doesn’t allow us to hide from anything. We have to examine every aspect of our lives and thoughts and feelings and behavior. But, just in case you’re tempted to move toward self-judgment right now, let’s remember that yoga is a practice of uncovering. We’re not trying to force ourselves into some idea of “goodness.” We’re working to expose the conditioning that has separated us from the reality of who we are. Remember Donna Farhi’s words: our practice is nothing more than becoming a human being. We’re trying to recover our humanity.
The yama-s, which we’ll study in much more detail over the coming weeks, are not listed as a series of thou shalt not’s. They’re not a list of rules to follow. They’re a set of profound statements that describe our True Being—that describe who we are when we’re established in our true humanity. The complicated, long standing, deeply ingrained systems of oppression and privilege have robbed us of our true humanity.
In order to get it back we have to start asking ourselves some hard questions—which, of course, requires that we stay present with discomfort. Our ancient teacher understood that the world is complicated and that our minds have been conditioned away from our true nature. So, before he explored what it means to be established in moral restraint, he offered a meditation practice for the reality that our minds are often overrun with violence, lies, and various forms of selfishness.
The practice of pratipaksa bhavanam, or cultivating the opposite, is a practice that asks us to stay present with our negative conditioning long enough to remember that the end result is ongoing suffering and ignorance.
Most of us don’t think of ourselves as violent. But as we examine the violence of the world, can we search out our part in it? Remember our larger systems are the creation of our collective action. The small actions we take every day are related to how the larger systems function. Eighteenth century Quaker John Woolman asked: “May we look upon our treasure, the furniture of our houses, and our garments, and try to discover whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions.” In a similar vein, in yoga sutra 2.34, Patanjali asks that we examine whether we are performing violent action ourselves, or causing or condoning violence to be performed on our behalf. In our global society where things like slaughterhouses, sweat shops, and prison labor are deeply hidden from our view, it can be difficult to see how we authorize violence to be performed on our behalf.
But if we’re serious about justice—if we’re serious about love—we must commit to the long-term, hard work of untangling the systems of our society and our place within them.
As I said, we’re going to move through these ethical teachings really slowly over the coming weeks. For now, I ask that you remember the principle of pratipaksa bhavanam, the practice of cultivating the opposite. As we do the hard work of staying with discomfort and examining our thoughts, feelings, and actions, something else happens… A different space opens up within us—a space where we can begin to imagine and cultivate something different. A space where we can reconnect with the fullness of our humanity and begin to imagine a world where, as sutra 2.35 describes, violence is abandoned.