Yoga Activism


For years I spoke passionately about what I termed “Yoga Activism”.  Of course, looking back I can see why.  I had spent most of my youth (from some of my earliest memories) being very concerned about the state of the world.  I took it upon myself to “fix” it, and tried to my very best ability and at great cost to my mental, emotional and physical health.  I threw myself into war zones and areas of extreme poverty, and even though I was incredibly grateful for the expanded view it gave me of the world and challenged me beyond belief, in reality, I was unable to really make much of an impact. I was one person giving everything in order to exert a tiny force upon a huge wave.  What changed my attitude and my effectiveness was (surprise surprise) Yoga.

It’s often said that a yogi who doesn’t work to give back to the world remains narcissistic, fully absorbed in their own never ending project of self improvement, whilst an activist without the intimate connection of a yoga practice remains angry and ineffective.  Yet perhaps the two are the parts that make us whole – fully human.  The two combined bring a beautiful synergy, where we are able to fully embrace the depth of our reality without trying to hide from it or stand there and shout at it until it changes to something more inline with our utopian dreams.  By journeying in and casting shadows on the parts that keep us repeating the same patterns of destruction, the world (beginning with our nearest and dearest) must surely reap the benefits.

This level of deep self observation also shines a light on what formed our own ideas of right and wrong, our very morality and ways in which we relate to the external world.  Every single one of us has our own ideas of how the world should be. We each have our own ideas about the political system, which religion or spiritual path is best, what economic system is most effective and so one.  Eight billion people all having their own and (in their eyes) equally valid perspectives.  A consistent practice points to how our education, culture, life experiences, attachments, aversions and so on formulate our belief systems. In this way we know that as we begin to unwind these conditioned ways of being, our ideas of the world, life and ourselves all radically change.

The other trap to look out for is the often taught malady of seeing the glass half full rather than half empty. Do we always have a tendency to be the pessimist? To not seeing the wood for the trees, or rather the beauty that does exist, sometimes because of the suffering? The world, after all, is formed primarily by one’s own sense perceptions. You and I most likely don’t see things the same – perhaps the way we perceive colours is different, or hearing different tones, or our different life experiences means that we are attuned to noticing different things. Once we begin to observe our innate bias on how we see the world, we can catch any prejudice that may prevent us from seeing things how they really are. The sun is another perfect reminder of this. We still speak about how the sun rises every day. But the sun never rises; it is the earth that spirals. What else do we know but still continue to act to the contrary?

As I look over at how my views and opinions have shifted, I am now wary about the times I am resistant to situations, or willing the world to simply be a better, more kind place. Time and time again I am reminded by the words of Mooji that “life is indeed much kinder than I imagine” and nothing is ever as it first seems. There is always more than what first meets the eye. Once we start to peel away the layers, the masks and the conditioned ways of thinking then reality extends to embrace a picture far larger and more profound than what is often thought and taught.

However, where is the balance between accepting the mandate that everything is utterly “perfect” and the disease of anthropocentrism[1], which is that we (humans) are destroying the world and therefore we (humans) must save the world. Yet perhaps all that the world needs saving from, is ourselves…

When we look at Yoga the whole point is not to generate more karma (actions) and yet even the Bhagavad Gita reminds that to exist is to act. Even an inanimate object such as a rock has movement. The building blocks of matter, the atomic particles, are in fact not building blocks at all but incredibly complex patterns of energy in constant movement. This, the universe, is a vast vibratory expanse. In the words of Alfred North Whitehead, “the world is process”. In this way, Krishna tells Arjuna that because actions are an inevitable part of existence, then every action must be performed with the highest intention:

Just as the unwise act attached to action, O son of Bharate, the wise should act unattached desiring the world’s welfare.  (3.25)

The essence of the path of Karma Yoga as outlined in the Bhagavad Gita is all about freedom in action. It is the ability to transcend personal interest and allow every action to be in service. Mahatma Gandhi was a big fan from the Bhagavad Gita and was in Georg Feurstein’s words “modern India’s most superb example of a karma-yogi in action”. He “worked tirelessly on himself and for the welfare of the Indian nation.”[2] The karma-yogi must transcend the self by giving from a place of wisdom with the welfare of others as the prime motivation, as opposed to giving for self-gratification. For example, if one is motivated by the idea of achieving fame or praise then the action is tainted. If one’s actions fail to be effective and you become disheartened or depressed, then you have become mistakenly attached to the results, and reluctant to keep on going and finding another more viable solution. Likewise, if we apply action without wisdom, we may well be making a situation worse rather than better. Karma-yoga therefore requires a perfect balance of wisdom and compassion and continuous self-reflection on why one is called to act. A daily practice to strengthen one’s ability to give is simply through generosity. The practice of giving without expectation of receiving anything back, and to do so beyond what is necessary. This type of generosity can be called “queenly”, and it allows us to move beyond aparigraha and by doing so encourage others to do the same. We re-train ourselves to enjoy the gifts of having “less” and giving “more”.

Yet often as we dive deeper beyond knowledge and deeper into philosophy (into the love of wisdom as is the literal translation from Greek) then of course the inevitable questions arise such as “what is the purpose of my life?” And yet is there any point to toil laboriously to relieve the suffering of others when if, according to the Vedanta teachings, everything is already in perfect harmony? How on earth am I to have a positive impact when my own views and opinions are tainted by my own innate conditionings? Or is it wise to help others when I can’t even help myself? As one swami, who lives in Ubud, often says, “you can’t try and save a drowning man if you can’t swim!” Just as with everything we have studied during this course (from what we think we know about Yoga’s history, the validity of striving towards a goal of bliss or enlightenment, or even what “freedom” means) likewise, like the other paths of Yoga, it can appear that path of karma yoga is not universally applicable. For some it may feel like our calling, for others a distraction from doing the inner work, and for others still it may steal the thunder of awakening from those who we appear to serve. In the words of Mooji, “know that within your heart of hearts life is tailor made for awakening.” By trying to stop someone from suffering, are we appeasing the storm that could shake them into a more authentic and real life? Not only this, but according to the Vedic scriptures, it is said that we are currently living in the Kali Yuga, that it is a dark age of vice and conflict. This cycle is the lowest of human civilization, where spirituality is said to degenerate significantly.  It lasts 432,000 years.  Now here’s a thought!

Ironically the continuing debate to act or sit back and let the world carry on regardless can just lead to more confusion and wasted time procrastinating what to do. These controversial points are central to both how we activate yoga and yoga activism. Even though I don’t have any clear answers, what my own personal journey has taught me is that a certain amount of reflection can prevent acting out of naivety and can increase the effectiveness of the action taken. Like so many aspects of this practice – the point is to live it, and not merely think about it, or even meditate on it.

[1] An anthropocentric view regards humankind as the central or most important element of existence, especially as opposed to God or animals.

[2] Feuerstein, Georg. The Yoga Tradition, p. 49

Extract taken from Freedom Through Movement Immerse-in-Yoga, course manual.