I may not have the exact right words to say, but I am compelled to address the sadness and outrage reverberating through our communities and the tremendous injustices in our society that oppress and devalue people of color. I don’t know about you, but I am reeling from the events of the past weeks. And I’m not talking about coronavirus. I am referring to the events leading to the loss of the lives of George Floyd, Breona Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so very many others who have died as a result of police violence and racial injustice.
Without addressing the brutality that is being experienced, I cannot ethically hold the space of the teacher, guiding others to breathe while throughout the country people of color are crying out “I CAN’T BREATHE”.
This morning I received an email from Shannon Roche, the CEO and President of Yoga Alliance containing the following:
“Breath. We who practice and teach yoga understand breath, in a deep and intimate way. We know that breath is life-giving, that it is life-changing, and that it is shared, equally, among every living being on this earth. We know exactly what George Floyd’s last words, which echoed those of Eric Garner nearly six years before—“I can’t breathe”—meant, and exactly what was taken from him.”
As the past days and weeks have shone a spotlight on the inequities in our society, from the impact of the coronavirus on people of color to the social injustice resulting in the loss of lives, I have been percolating in a sea of intense emotions–anger, frustration, hopelessness, and incredible sadness.
Recognizing the need to recenter, this weekend I joined a virtual meditation practice and Q & A with Tara Brach. Our practice and discussion was centered around anger and grief and how to skillfully contain, investigate, and integrate intense emotions in order to respond, not by turning away, but by moving forward with right action.
Tara shared several things that stood out to me. The first is that anger has an intelligence. Anger initiates action and can lead to transformation when it is managed skillfully. Next, she shared that when we live in a bubble of privilege it is easy to hide away and buffer ourselves from the truth of the suffering of others. This felt relevant in so many ways. It would be so much easier to post a few memes on social media with #BlackLivesMatter and a peace emoji than to sit with intense emotions and seek skillful action.
That leads me to the central questions–how do we, as yogis, come together to share the practice of breath, awareness, and expansion without retreating into a bubble? How do we use our practice to transform ourselves rather than only to quiet our minds? How do we talk about breath and inner quiet without touching on the anger, injustice, and turmoil tearing through our communities? How do we on the yogic path respond with right action?
The practice of yoga is not an exercise you do with your body, it is a way of being and a way of living. Though yoga is often a refuge from the inner and outer racket of being human, by design the practice is not always comfortable. Yoga is the state of being present with what is. Yoga is about developing the real capacity to be with whatever is occurring in the moment–good or bad, blissful or abhorrent. This requires us at times to stay with the most intense emotions within ourselves, within others, and within our community.
And here we are right now, sitting in the intersection of uncomfortable and unbearable.
During practice I often invite my students to attend to the current of energy that is flowing through them and notice what is moving, what is shifting. This anchor–this tide of awareness–sometimes brings with it a storm; a tidal wave of ugliness staring us in the face. The yogic path asks that we do not turn away into our comfortable habits, but that we build the capacity to examine ourselves through awareness and self-study. Only through the lens of awareness can we recognize what steps to take to move to the other side.
The foundation of yogic practice is built on the yamas and niyamas, the restraints and the observances. The final three of these practices are called Kriya Yoga, which is Yoga in Action. These practices are Tapas (heat, discipline), Svadhyaya (self study), and Ishvara-pranidhana (surrender to Higher Awareness).
Combined, these three niyamas allow us not only to manage difficult situations, but purposefully to step into the fire of transformation. As we walk through the fire, yoga requires us to observe within ourselves what must be refined and to identify the steps needed for growth. Growth does not occur by surrendering to the status quo, but by following the lead of Higher Awareness, whether it is comfortable or whether it is excruciatingly difficult.
And finally, the path of yoga requires that everything we do be built on the foundation of compassion for others and also for ourselves. In the words of Swami Kripalu, “the highest form of spiritual practice is self-observation without judgement.”
Without applying these core principles of yoga, we are simply moving our arms and legs around on a rubber mat; we are not practicing yoga at all.
How do we show up with this discomfort and bring about real change for our community? I, for one, am giving myself permission to cry, to sit with anger, and to be uncomfortable with difficult conversations. I am willing to show up imperfectly as I figure out each step to take. And I am breathing and each breath is with incredible gratitude and resolve.
Using the tools of yoga I believe if we choose to be uncomfortable we can experience personal and global transformation.
I leave you with a few resources. Lynn Rossy wrote an excellent blog post, On Becoming An Antiracist. I have also found the VIA Character Strengths to be a resource to identify the skills I possess to move through challenging times.