Yoga is more than an hour-long class and yoga can be a political act

June 8, 2020

I began this monthly column with the intention of demonstrating that yoga reaches far beyond the physical movement of the body and even beyond a seated meditation practice.  Sharing my knowledge of yoga in this manner largely became important to me as I spent a lot of time last year reflecting on my own white privilege as a yoga teacher and as a white person living in the UK.  The process was uncomfortable and  I encourage you to read my Why I am a student of yoga blog article if you want to learn more about my own reflections.  However, in short, I want to recognise the elephant in the room; teaching yoga is a privilege I exercise because of the colonisation of yoga.  In the effort to decolonise my own yoga practice, I want to honour the ancient tradition of yoga and create a space where my students can explore their own practice whilst honouring this ancient tradition too. 

 

In its essence, yoga is a philosophical way of living your life and the physical movement of the body and meditation that we associate with a Western yoga class, comprises only two aspects of the eight philosophical principles, or limbs, that underpin the practice of yoga.  The non-dualist tradition of yoga does not identify with God but rather, recognises that we are all connected.  In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a key text on yoga philosophy  written over 2000 years ago, the eight-limb path is used to demonstrate the central principles of yoga and is a clear framework that you can return to again and again to deepen and expand your understanding and practice of yoga.  These eight limbs are:

 

  1. Yamas (moral disciplines, ethics)

  2. Niyamas (positive duties or observances)

  3. Asana (posture, physical movement of the body)

  4. Pranayama (breathing techniques)

  5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses)

  6. Dharana (concentration)

  7. Dhyana (meditation)

  8. Samadhi (enlightenment)

 

By moving through the limbs of yoga, the tradition details the potential for powerful transformation of the self, enabling the practitioner to find peace, freedom from suffering and the recognition that we are all one.  In other words, yoga enables the practitioner to master their own mind.  The anxieties, the short attention span and distractions of the mind are not a new phenomenon, they are simply exacerbated by our modern lifestyles and the eight-limb path of yoga offers a powerful tool to anchor you throughout your life.  It acts an instrument to allow you to relax your body, quiet your mind, find greater clarity in your thoughts, find acceptance of your feelings and offers you the moment to reflect and turn inward.  This framework, however, is not simply confined to the movement of the body, and by exploring the other limbs of yoga, you can harness the full potential of this powerful practice. 

 

I could write an entire book about the eight-limbs of yoga and, in fact, one of the books detailed below has done that already.  Therefore, it seems most useful to highlight several of the limbs that are especially pertinent right now.   The ethics (or Yamas) of Ahimsa (non-harming), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing) and Aparigraha (non-greed) as well the duty (or Niyama) of Svadhyaya (self-study) are especially relevant and are a good reminder of the work I should be doing as a white person to identify my own privilege.  Yoga especially resonates for me because it happily accommodates the grey areas of life and although Ahimsa (or non-harming) could be taken on face value, it much more nuanced than that.  I point you to this post from Susanna Barkataki discussing this ethic of yoga and demonstrating how yoga has the potential to be political.  Yoga encourages you to reflect and the limb of Pratyahara is not only concerned with turning inwards but also encourages you to think about how what you consume impacts your overall sense of well-being; this may be food but it can also be what you read, you see, the people around you and the environment that you live in.  If you are white, it encourages you to do the work yourself, to be honest with yourself and not to rely on the BIPOC around you to offer support and relinquishment from guilt.   

 

With this information, I encourage you to explore yoga beyond the physical movement of the body.  Can you take a little bit longer to be with the breath?  Can you add an element of written reflection before or after your physical yoga practice?  What books can you read to broaden your knowledge of yourself and others?   I also want to highlight that if the yoga tradition is not a part of your heritage, then it is a privilege that you can choose to explore the tradition of yoga.  However, by getting uncomfortable with this privilege is part of the work that we need to do and I offer this quote from L. R. Knost, which has been resonating with me:

 

“Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.”

 

I am also aware that there is a lot of noise around this subject on social media and the news and I hope I can offer a little bit of clarity amongst that.  This video is a fantastic introduction to white privilege. It addresses the distinction between individual bias and structural racism and privilege and explains why the movement is called Black Lives Matter instead of All Lives Matter.  I encourage you to give it a watch and listed below are a couple of books to get you started on exploring the eight limbs and the history of yoga:

 

  1. The Eight Limbs of Yoga: A Handbook For Living Yoga Philosophy by Stuart Ray Sarbacker and Kevin Kimple

  2. From the Vedas to Vinyasa: An introduction to the History and Philosophy of Yoga by Amy Vaughn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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