Our yoga teacher told us to gaze at the edge of our towels as if they were the most beautiful things we’d ever seen. I did. It was. That edge was beautiful because it took us away, in that moment, from everything.
For centuries, the practical core of yoga’s wisdom has been relinquishment, and on this foundation many have found peace. We are capable of peace, especially when we can shut down anxiety and worry, but Western practitioners struggle with a void. We need a focus and that’s the beauty of softly gazing at a towel in meditation.
It’s tempting to find a comfortable meditative cocoon in yoga, and once there, ignore social problems. One ne just criticism of yoga has been its escapist tendencies. And it’s true that the reality of crime and bad intent is not welcome in a meditative cocoon.
Truth and Yoga
But social problems and the world’s bitterness exist. Writer Aimee Lin’s words, diagnosing the human condition, are honest and wise, “Truth contains beauty, balance, empathy, mercy, love and insight, but also horror, brutality, and desperate need.”
Getting away from the world and its ‘desperate need’ during yoga, and seeing the edge of a towel as a beautiful thing, is something I look forward to. It’s a good way to recharge my spirit and optimism.
I’m not alone in my wish to be hopeful, to find the beautiful, and to invest in better ways of living. This is illustrated by more people taking responsibility to tend to their own health and growth through new modes of self-care and positive thought: acupuncture, natural medicine, organic food, yoga, self-generated health investments, life-coaching movements are growing. We want to be healthy and whole
I think a hard truth for many of us that prefer peace and well-being, is that life also asks us to be our brothers’ keeper. But if our moments of peace do not motivate us to stand up for others, we will silently and surely join legions of the regretful.
Martin Niemoeller, Nazi Prison camp survivor, once wrote most eloquently of this:
“First they arrested the Communists – but I was not a Communist, so I did nothing. Then they came for the Social Democrats – but I was not a Social Democrat, so I did nothing. Then they arrested the trade unionists – and I did nothing because I was not one. And then they came for the Jews and then the Catholics, but I was neither a Jew nor a Catholic and I did nothing. At last they came and arrested me – and there was no one left to do anything about it.”
Many years ago I ran across James Allen’s book, As a Man Thinketh. It predates, by over 100-years, the not-so-secret notion that our thoughts dictate our circumstances. Allen believed that thoughts directly change one’s character traits through the energy which they create. These traits, in turn, bring-forth the changed circumstances of our lives. If I can wrap my head around a towel as the “most beautiful thing in the world,” then I can wrap my head around this too: I am my brother’s keeper
During yoga, our teacher reminds us to meditate upon the towel, but her second beautiful thought reminded us of the societal link in our lives and in our yoga practice, “You’re here taking care of yourself so that you can go out into the world and take care of everybody and everything else,” she said.
How Yoga Leads Us to Social Action
Yoga’s primary focus is self-development and peace, we all know that. But there’s a second step too, an evolving of our practice from a social isolation, perhaps even a selfish practice, to a springboard for social engagement. This will happen once all of us see yoga as more than a solo pursuit of better karma or liberation, or a better physique, or a way to make help us get deeper sleep.
I write this on Martin Luther King’s Birthday and the day after I watched, AWAKE: The Life of Yogananda. The movie portrayed Yogananda as being dismayed by the treatment of African American’s in the pre-Civil Rights, Jim Crowe South. But beyond his dismay, the movie did not mention any steps he took to help change or challenge those conditions. There are reasons yoga has a poor inclusion of diversity and one reason is that yoga’s leadership has not challenged racism, sexism and xenophobia in a public or deliberate way.
There are reasons for yoga’s “hand’s off” stance with social issues, starting with its inception in India where the caste system dictated social standing.To have societal integrity, I think U.S. yoga practitioners need to move beyond apolitical stances and non-involvement. Social injustice spins around us like a destructive tornado, and it’s irresponsible to care only for ourselves when there is great unrest everywhere.
The Gift and Application of Yoga
I’d like to drive away injustice and xenophobic hate-crime in our society, but I don’t have that ability. I do have yoga’s most important gift and its application. The gift is a deep awareness that we are one, and its application is a consciousness that changes me, and by extension, engenders a new society one by one.
While the meditative repose of my yoga practice gives me the strength to contemplate the beautiful and find peace there, it also fills me with compassion and therefore the strength and responsibility to stand with and to speak up against the ugly winds of negative – isms’ everywhere.
When the winds of madness blow, our Republic needs citizens that will help restore sanity to families, neighborhoods, towns, cities and countries. Let’s be part of sanity by lifting our practice of the beautiful to make it part of our social platform. “Take care of yourself so that you can go out there and take care of everyone and everything else,” she said.
I believe centered (awake) citizens know, deep down, that their peacefulness carries moral authority when it translates into action. Certainly Gandhi, India’s most potent truth seeker and yogi, understood this. As a writer, a yogi and a citizen, ‘I am my brother’s keeper.’
…The times discipline is to think of the theDeath of all living
and yet live.