by Justin Lincoln
Shaking my head in sadness, I turn off the news blaring from the radio. I don’t know what to do, or what I want to do, but my mind gravitates toward doing yoga. Sighing heavily, I step onto my mat, my mind filled with images, my eyes filling with tears. Another Black person killed out of fear, or anger, or some other dark and unconscious impulse. After mindlessly and half-heartedly performing a couple of sun salutations, I gradually feel pulled into different postures. I move through a sequence of warrior poses, and eventually find myself standing strongly in a Peaceful Warrior pose.
Peaceful Warrior pose, shanti virabhadrasana, requires that we stand in power and vulnerability simultaneously. It’s a delicate and often elusive balance to find and maintain. However, the process of creating genuine change demands that we engage in this experience.
Moving through this moving meditation, returning to Peaceful Warrior again and again, other thoughts and feelings start to bubble up into my mind. For example, isn’t yoga “above and beyond” this fray? Can true yogis even be angry? And what about the concept of ahimsa, I wonder. How does that “fit” with these urges to fight for social justice? Even that word “fight” seems wholly out of place in yoga.
Ahimsa is typically translated as meaning “nonviolence,” though more broadly refers to an “absence of injury.” By extension, it also means the “absence of injustice.” With respect to anger, the Dalai Lama talks a great deal about necessary anger that is both compassionate and constructive. The resulting actions seem to conform with John Lewis’ encouragement to find “good trouble.” The Bhagavad Gita directs us to seek peace and justice for all. Indeed, the personal is political, as referenced in the book Skill in Action, otherwise, we run the risk of spiritual bypassing.
Continuing the practice, recognizing that my mind is starting to feel focused again, I wonder how my identity and life might be different were I to have found yoga earlier in life. As Frederick Douglass is thought to have said, “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults.” How might the world be different, even? Then I remember that it’s never too late – or too early! – to start practicing yoga. And yoga is for everybody. Every. Single. Person.
Practicing yoga – broadly defined – cultivates a different sense of “awareness.” We learn to become attuned to internal experiences, interpersonal dynamics, situational energy, and environmental changes. In the process, we become increasingly aware of and sensitive to examples of injustice in our lives and in our world.
Suddenly, in the midst of this emerging sense of peace, I start to experience stirrings of guilt, of self-doubt. I ask myself, “Wait, is this all that yoga is good for, to calm my agitations while everything around me remains in tumult?” It all feels rather self-indulgent for a moment.
It’s become a truism that it’s important to work on ourselves before we can effectively create change in others and in the world. This reminds me of the words of Alan Watts: “…the relationship of self to other is the complete realization that loving yourself is impossible without loving everything defined as other than yourself.” In the end we help ourselves in more extensive and meaningful ways that we ever imagined. As Vivekenanda said, “In helping the world, we really help ourselves.” The practice of Lovingkindness meditation fits this mold as well.
It’s easy to imagine conversations with my daughter along these lines. She already asks a multitude of sobering and thought-provoking questions.
In many ways, children are already aware of their surroundings. They know, intuitively, when situations or interactions are confusing, maybe even unfair. They ask questions along those lines. They count on the adults in their world to give them honest and direct answers, not just with our words, but also with our actions.
Another layer of the onion peeled, savasana leaves me feeling more centered, more resolved. Some of the confusion remains, but it’s less muddy. I feel the need to do something. Then, I remember that I am doing something, I’m doing yoga. I’m practicing “Skill in Action.”
Yoga provides an opportunity for us to engage in a “reverent pause,” the contemplative action that is a necessary component of any difficult and skillful action. Jessica Patterson, Colorado Springs-based yoga therapist, talks about this concept eloquently. Yes, conflict is inevitable, perhaps even necessary. We can approach these situations with love and compassion in order to create change in the world, and the “peaceful warrior” pose helps us remember that.