“If the word ‘yoga’ means many things, that is because Yoga is many things.” — Mircea Eliade
I moved to Orange County, NC, from Baltimore, my hometown, on April 20, 2008. I chose this place as my new home for a variety of reasons including a great job opportunity at UNC Health Care, the spectacular local food scene, the proximity to beaches and mountains, the great yoga teachers and studios, and the sense of community I felt in Carrboro. When I first visited North Carolina, I expected the residents to fit into one of my narrow stereotypes of Southern folks. Instead I was met in Carrboro with diversity, progressive points of view, and people helping and caring for one another in a way I had not experienced in any other community. The year I moved here was also the year that North Carolinians helped elect President Barack Obama. My new friends and I gathered on the night of the election to watch the returns with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, a bucket of popcorn, and a renewed faith in the American way of governing. I felt so proud of my new home state as the news anchors announced that Obama won NC. I felt proud of the majority of my fellow citizens for placing more importance on Obama’s qualifications, eloquence, and passion than on of the color of his skin. My friends and I cried tears of relief and joy. Silently, I vowed to renew my commitment to civic engagement and get more involved in local issues.
Five years later, I am so surprised and saddened by the actions of many members of the North Carolina General Assembly, which became more conservative in 2010 and again in 2012. In less than 100 days in session, the elected Assembly has denied Medicaid to 500,000 uninsured North Carolinians; denied 165,000 North Carolinians unemployment when our state has the fifth-highest unemployment rate in the nation; and denied 900,000 working, low-income North Carolinians the federal Earned Income Credit. They’ve also passed or introduced legislation to “cut taxes for the top 5 percent while raising taxes on the bottom 95 percent; allow for guns to be purchased without a background check and carried in parks, playgrounds, restaurants and bars; do away with public financing of judicial races; and prohibit death row inmates from challenging racially discriminatory verdicts.” (from The Nation’s blog)
What does all this have to do with yoga, you might be wondering. You might come to yoga to stretch and strengthen your body and calm your mind, both wonderful and valid reasons. However, the underlying philosophy of yoga goes way beyond asana (the practice of poses) to include the yamas and niyamas, guidelines for how to treat one another and live a good life. This is what your teacher means when he or she talks about taking your yoga “off the mat.” Expounded in the Yoga Sutra, the niyamas are practices we do in order to uplift ourselves so that we can uplift others through the practice of the yamas, which I will focus on here:
ahimsa (non-harming, non-violence)
satya (truthfulness in thought, word, and deed)
brahmacarya (using sexual energy carefully)
I believe the General Assembly is violating several of these foundational yogic ideas with their policies. They have not been truthful about their intentions, they’re stealing and being greedy (or facilitating the greed of others) by taxing our poorer citizens more heavily to give tax breaks to those who do not need them. They’re allowing harm to come to the health of those who are unemployed and uninsured by denying them unemployment benefits and Medicaid. (The Big Think has a great post on yoga as a political tool.)
Yoga teaches us that we live in a realm of duality, where opposing forces will always ebb and flow. The two main texts on Yoga philosophy, The Yoga Sutra and The Bhagavad Gita, offer us a few different guidelines regarding dealing with injustice. Yoga Sutra 1.33 says more about how we should treat others in various situations: “By cultivating an attitude of friendship toward those who are happy, compassion toward those in distress, joy toward those who are virtuous, and equanimity toward those who are nonvirtuous, lucidity arises in the mind.” (Edwin Bryant’s translation) Two groups of people are involved in the actions of the majority of the General Assembly: “those in distress” (the people affected adversely by these laws and political positions) and “those who are nonvirtuous” (those whose actions are hurting others). (As an aside, I personally will not judge other people as nonvirtuous, but I do judge actions as nonvirtuous. I believe, like Buddhism teaches, that we all have basic goodness at our core but are frequently led away from it by ignorance.)
The Bhagavad Gita focuses on Karma Yoga, or the path of action: “In this world there are two main paths: the yoga of understanding, for contemplative men; and for men who are active, the yoga of action. Not by avoiding actions does a man gain freedom from action, and not by renunciation alone can he reach the goal. No one, not even for an instant, can exist without acting; all beings are compelled, however unwillingly, by the three strands of Nature called gunas.” (Not to get too off-topic, but the three gunas are the subtlest qualities of the worldly realm, and they are sattva [balance, harmony, light], tamas [inertia, dullness, quiet], and rajas [activity, movement].)
Because I must act in some way, and I am instructed to be compassionate toward those in distress, and because I can feel on a gut level that I must speak up against this injustice, I feel it is my duty as a citizen to advocate for the rights of my fellow beings.
Fortunately, the NAACP and other concerned citizens have been protesting these actions since February 9, 2013. The protests and rallies, now known as Moral Mondays, are gaining momentum. 150 people, including a quorum of our town’s Board of Aldermen (yoga teacher Michelle Johnson, Sammy Slade, and Damon Seils), as well as Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton, were arrested at the fifth of these gatherings at the North Carolina General Assembly. Watch Mayor Chilton graciously and calmly recite his Constitutional rights as he’s arrested while many other concerned citizens assemble and sing here (that’s Michelle to his right). I’m so proud of our town’s representatives and citizens who are peacefully speaking out for the rights of all. I plan to join them on June 24 by meditating and chanting the peaceful, sacred sound of om (and maybe doing a few poses, too). Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to show your support or join me in this important, peaceful evening of non-violent action. We’ll have yoga mats for you, and we’ll be out of the area where you’d be arrested for assembling (although you’re obviously free to risk arrest and assemble there, too).
I’d also love to hear your thoughts about yoga and social action in general. Feel free to comment or email me privately.