flowers, lotus, water lilies

II. Social justice and the yoga practitioner: yoga’s relevance today

This is the second part of this four-part blog series. If you want to start at the beginning, read the articles entitled ‘Social justice and the yoga practitioner’ in reverse order.

Yoga is still as relevant today as it was in the time of the Egyptians. However, while its focus back then may have been more concerned with meditation, prayer and ritual, today I see yoga as manifesting itself more in asana work and karmic yoga – as yoga in action.

Increasing numbers of people, it would seem, are on the path to enlightenment; moving from a place of darkness (‘blissful’ ignorance) to light (wisdom). From the Occupy Movement, to Climate marchers, to the Black Lives Matter movement, we are increasingly rising up when confronted with the inequities of our economic system, with each new protest signifying a metaphoric crossroads in which we can act on something that has been made visible – become part of the conscious – or remain ignorant. And these movements don’t just occupy picket lines, they are rebuilding the alternative, by working to change policies through the inclusion of marginalised people in the decision-making process.

Just as with protests, other places exist in which people can have an embodied experience of collective suffering and the power that exists within to make a positive change in the world, and one such space is one for the practice of yoga. Yoga’s growth in popularity is testament that there is an appetite for more peace in the world, and more bravery to sit with suffering. Now, as practitioners and studio owners, we have the opportunity to give some thought to how we can make our work more inclusive and to ‘move skilfully’ when we are called to do so by protests and similar calls to action.

Tuning in to a recent webinar about Inclusivity in Yoga, I heard from three inspiring women each working with a different group of people – sex workers, the queer community and fat women, respectively – to create safe spaces for these groups to express themselves and to navigate their own spiritual path. In being direct in their approach, clearly stating that they are working with a marginalised group of society, they are reaching out and embracing communities that may not otherwise have access to the knowledge and experience of yoga.

The speakers were all part of Bristol Yoga Roots “an evolving community of yoga teachers looking to share yoga with under-represented populations in Bristol”. To amplify our message, networks such as Bristol Yoga Roots are important. They can create a support network to influence change beyond the yoga mat, and to provide console to teachers that may otherwise feel they are all alone in their pursuit of inclusivity.

Yoga teachers are growing in number and the practice is evermore popular. Yet, for mainstream society the perception, by and large, is that it is an exercise to become bendy. Unfortunately this not only overlooks some of the deeper meanings of yoga, it excludes many groups from taking to the mat. The way I see it, without applying a social justice lens to our practice, we will continue to exclude people from the practice of yoga, and from doing our work – our dharma – in creating a more peaceful, loving and inclusive world.

Towards inclusion and yogic philosophy

Two important yogic texts are relevant to this topic of social justice: the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. According to Yoga Alliance, Yoga Sutra 1.1 in particular —Atha yoga anushasanam—serves as a call to action for all of us to engage, to assess the present moment, and to tune into what is happening now. In response to the Black Lives Matter protest they said: “We can no longer sit on the sidelines and rather will strive to amplify the voices, experiences, and work of those who continue to guide us through this process of learning and expanding our awareness and responsibility”. As part of this global community, we too can no longer sit on the sidelines.

Meanwhile, Michelle Casandra Johnson, author of Skill in Action: Radicalizing Your Yoga Practice to Create a Just World (2017), says the Gita teaches us to move skilfully as social change agents for a just and equitable world. Arjuna’s existential crisis, as to whether to fight or to retreat concerns the struggles we face around social justice – do we step out of our comfort zone to ‘fight’ for the benefit of others less privileged than ourselves, or do we nothing. If we choose the latter then that is action in itself, according to Krishna; we will let greater evil – in this case inequity – to persist.

If we apply this lens to the BG then to be a yogi is to be a social justice activist. It requires we are committed to the cause (loving devotion, Bhakti yoga), seek to educate ourselves and reflect on inequities (knowledge and contemplation, Jnana yoga) and carry out our duty selflessly (selfless action, Karma yoga).

A key principle of nature is that of interdependence: everything is interconnected. The collective karma of our ancestors, as well as the forces of the planet and the cosmos, all intertwine into a matted web of connections that mean we are inseparable from one another through space and time.

Sally Kempton (2012) describes it this way: “On one level, this universe is a weaving of matter and energy. But we could also look at it as a weaving of karma—a tapestry of actions, intentions, and their effects. The flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Hong Kong, to use the famous example, affects the hurricane forming in the South Atlantic. The Wall Street financial crisis of 2008 affects the life of a farmer in Argentina. Our personal life experience is inextricably entwined with the whole”.

The relevance of this principle regarding inclusion is that the suffering of others is our own – and we can not achieve liberation without liberating others of their suffering.

Racism: addressing suffering in this moment

Do you ever notice that when the universe is trying to tell you something the volume is progressively turned up until we can’t stand the noise any longer? Like when you keep attracting the same kinds of person in a relationship, each time getting a little worse, a little more irritating.

The more unequal a system becomes the more the forces of nature work to address the imbalance. For a society that has othered black people to the point where they are now at the bottom of the social hierarchy, there was only a matter of time before the noise became unbearable for white supremacists (aka white people). White people have become ‘supreme’ in society as they don’t have to struggle to get what they want. They can get the jobs they want, walk down the street without being stopped by a police officer, rent a house where they want, turn on the TV and see their race represented, the list goes on (McIntosh, 1989). We may struggle intellectually, but we don’t have to face the same systemic inequities. Until George Floyd, white people in the UK had largely been ignorant to these issues (I can’t speak on behalf of other countries so I will only refer to the UK here). Many white people will feel uncomfortable about this idea, and even guilty, but we cannot be appeased for this feeling – we need to sit with it, like a true yogi would, to then act from a place of loving kindness.

Like with similar protests that have gone before, I hope the BLM protests were the disruption the system needed to renew its outdated and racist components. Many organisations are now overhauling their exclusionary policies and yoga teachers and studio owners have the ability to do the same.

Many ask: why now? Why has it taken this long? From a psychological standpoint, entrenched behaviours are the hardest to shift. Like a lifetime of smoking, it is difficult to unpick all of the events you associate with the problem. Stressed? Smoke. 5 minutes to kill (literally)? Smoke. Drinking with friends? Smoke. Racism permeates so much of our life that it has until this point been hard to detach ourselves from it – it has become normalised so we can’t see it. Thousands upon thousands of drums needed to be banged before we were able to hear the problem and its ridiculousness. Astronauts refer to this ability to see the world for what it truly is as the Overview Effect – seeing first-hand the reality of a situation, so as to melt away preconceived ideas and create a cognitive shift in awareness. Yogi’s would say it is being greeted by samsara (a life-or-death experience) that causes you to bring your own existence and its connection to everything into reality – or to shine a light on the unconscious.

It took a ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances to lead to the uprising: multiple killings, the frustration and/or inner searching the prolonged period of solitude elicited (aka Lockdown), forcing us to stop and listen, and warmer, longer days (that are statistically linked to periods of protest). Tapas had reached boiling point. And as mentioned, the BLM is just one of a series of protests in recent years, and there are likely to be more to come.

#socialjustice #blacklivesmatter #yogatoday