by Elle Potter (founder of Yoga Buzz)
There is a lot going on in the world right now – although you probably don’t need me to tell you that. For some, you may know exactly what to do in response. But for those of us who may feel lost, what do you do when you don’t know what to do?
There are many different ways to practice yoga. The yoga we participate in through Yoga Buzz is called Karma Yoga. Karma is often interpreted in a number of different ways, but in this particular example, Karma simply means Action. Thus, I am a yogi who takes action to engage with the world around me, specifically to create change.
In taking action, it is natural to move forward onto the path of activism – after all, taking action means you are being active.
Let’s take a quick look at one definition of an activist:
Activist: an especially active, vigorous advocate of a cause
Ipso facto, a yogi who is an especially active, vigorous advocate of a cause is an activist.
Now, you may feel totally at home with the term “activist.” But if you’re not so comfortable with that term, I’ll be honest – the first time someone invited me into the conversation of activism, I also struggled with the idea. It felt overwhelming, like shoes I could never possibly fill. Images of angry activists filled my mind, people chaining themselves to trees, protesting endlessly – none of it felt like me.
Over time, my perspective of activism shifted, as I began to apply yogic philosophy to the idea of being active and vigorous in advocating change. And so, for my friends and fellow yogis out there who might be struggling to find a way forward in an ever-changing, tumultuous world, I offer this to you as an invitation into Karma Yoga, into activism.
These five thoughts are brought by the first limb of the Eight-Limbed Path of Yoga. This comes from the Yoga Sutras, an ancient text describing yoga, and one of the most studied yogic philosophical texts. The first limb is called the Yamas, which are guidelines for engaging with the external world. There are five Yamas, which are interpreted in a myriad of ways. Let’s look at them as a practical application of the modern activist.
Ahimsa – Non-Violence. Non-violence goes beyond the physical, and into the realms of emotional and psychological. The words you choose make an impact on those around you. Our modern society has created a world where we send emails, messages, and comments quickly, oftentimes without truly considering the impact our words may have on one another. Think about the time you spent scrolling down on your social media feed. When you come across someone posting an opinion that differs from yours, do you react? Or do you take time to think, and then choose how to act What I have noticed is when people react, ignited with anger and frustration, and the response is more anger and frustration. It escalates, all with rarely a constructive conversation and definitely no opportunity to actually listen to what the other person is saying.
Ahimsa teaches us to take a deep breath, consider what we are trying to say, weighing the impact of our words, and then making a choice of how to move forward. It may mean you step into a challenging and uncomfortable conversation, or it may mean that you choose to not engage – but either way, you come to that decision with intention.
Satya – Truth. Satya is a perfect complement to Ahimsa in consideration of non-violent communication. When you are in conversation, are you actively listening to what the other person has to say, or are you formulating your next response while they are talking? Satyameans listening with intention, and honoring that another person’s perspective on the world is based on what they experience to be true. While you may not experience the same injustices, acknowledging that they are very real for the person who does – this is not only a practice of Satya, but of Ahimsa as well.
Asteya – Non-Stealing. Asteya is not taking that which is not freely given. Asteya is exactly the opposite of oppression or exploitation, which intentionally takes away the civil and human rights of one group in a way that benefits another. Building on from Satya, when you refuse to acknowledge the truth of a group that has been marginalized, oppressed, or exploited, you are stealing away their right to be heard. When looking at the issues in the world that impact you personally, do not forget to look outside of your own experience. Speak up for (or, better yet, hand the microphone over to) those who are voiceless in a world that has implicit biases for certain issues.
Want an example of a way to shift your world view? Some women of color from our St. Louis area yoga community have put together this compilation of resources to move beyond the perspective of mainstream feminism to include women of color. Deep gratitude to these women for sharing this offering.
Brahmacharya – Energy Management. You cannot pour from an empty cup. As much as you engage with the world, you must take time to step back and unplug. Taking time to recharge yourself is imperative to being effective; burn out is all-too-real in the world of activism. For those of us who struggle with anxiety and depression, the work we do can exacerbate our illness. Make a list of the things that nourish you, and make a plan to implement those practices on a regular basis – whether it’s meditating, unrolling your yoga mat, taking a walk with a friend, or turning off your phone.
Aparigraha – Non-Possessiveness. Take stock of your resources – do you have abundance you can share, whether through donations of money, goods, or volunteering your time? Find existing organizations that take action for causes you are passionate about, and look into ways you can contribute. It doesn’t have to be your entire paycheck, but maybe it’s curtailing your morning latte and investing that money in providing free legal advice for immigrants in your community, or instead of binge-watching Netflix over the entire weekend, you invite friends over to knit scarves and hats for children in the foster care system. If you have privilege, share it.
Much like the physical practice of yoga, the practice of yoga off the mat means we must step into situations that make us slightly uncomfortable, practice taking deep breaths anyway, explore ways to find alignment, and understand that in order to grow and become stronger, we must be willing to listen not only to our own heart, but to the voices of others.