Why activists need to practise yoga

Forget the designer leggings or fitness aspect, the introspective practices of yoga can be a valuable guide for social change advocates, writes Jivamukti yoga teacher and Sea Shepherd crew member Anna Greer. [The Scavenger, 23 April 2014]

In my early 20s – when it seemed as though the right-wing John Howard would be Prime Minister forever in my home country of Australia, and the political landscape was characterised by the same nasty culture warring we’re seeing now – I was full of anger.

I’d go to refugee rights protests, anti-war protests and anti-globalisation protests, dressed in black, decorated with anarchist patches and seething with righteous indignation at the injustices of the establishment.

A decade later I still dress in black, and I’m still an activist but my approach to activism has changed.

Activism is no longer a place for me to release my frustration, anger and despair into the world.

Now I am asking myself the questions: How can I act from a place of love instead of anger? How can I infuse my actions with consciousness, instead of being reactionary? And how can I use my actions as a way to shine a light into the darker parts of my personality?

The teachings of Yoga and Buddhism have a lot to offer activists who are looking to become less angry and more effective.

In the ancient yogic text, the Bhagavad Gita, for example, the warrior Arjuna, becomes wavering and hesitant on the field of battle. His charioteer, the God Krishna, gives Arjuna a lengthy lesson in yoga as the two sides stand poised to fight. He tells Arjuna of a number of paths to Enlightenment, including Karma Yoga, the path of selfless service.

The battle of the Bhagavad Gita is an allegory for the battle raging within each of us, as we try to figure out what we’re doing here.

In Gandhi’s exposition of the Gita he puts it this way: Under the guise of physical warfare, [The Gita] described the duel that perpetually went on in the hearts of mankind.”

Below are some useful yogic lessons for activists contained within this ancient, but still relevant, scholarly text.

Our actions make our world

Primatologist Jane Goodall once said, “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

This is what Krishna says to Arjuna too when he begins to question his purpose in life.

Our individual actions matter and as much as we have the power to destroy we have the power to conserve and protect. The world we see today is made up of the interconnected web of actions that have come before.

To be truly effective agents for change we can begin by looking within – searching out the places we are creating fear, oppression and harm. It is easier to rage against the machine and focus on the unrighteous actions of others, however, if we are creating war within, or in our personal lives, we will be less effective at creating peace on a bigger scale.

There is always space to align our actions with our intentions and ideals. No-one is perfect but that gives us the challenge to take this project on as a continuously expanding practice.

When we can begin to heal our own disconnected consciousness, we can provide the spark others need to heal their own disconnection.

Act without attachment to results

“Being established in yoga, act without any thought of results, open to success or failure. This equanimity is yoga.” – Bhagavad GitaII.48

Attachment to our actions can provide a number of pitfalls. For example, it can cripple our will when problems seem too big for our actions to have an impact.

Or we can lose sight of why we are taking a particular action if we get too caught up in success or failure.

That doesn’t mean we wander the path directionless. We need to have our goals to work towards. Whether you want to end factory farming, or discrimination or promoting environmental conservation, it’s useful to have a vision to work towards.

When we figure out what our goals are we can consciously act in order to achieve them but the Bhagavad Gita tells us to let go of attachment to our actions. To not give in to fear of failure, or the pitfalls of success. And to not hanker after the results – to swap the rollercoaster ride for some more even terrain so our work can remain sustainable.

When trying to figure out what our particular healing role is, it can be useful to clarify what we’re willing to let go of to contribute to any particular issue.

What we are willing to sacrifice will then determine what we can offer. Are you willing to offer money, time, freedom, comfort? And within those constraints, what can you do?

Love is the way

A recurring theme in the Bhagavad Gita is the Oneness of being. Over and over we are told all beings are Divine. Krishna tells Arjuna to have equal regard for friends and enemies, saints and sinners.

This is easier said than done but when we remember that we are all responsible for causing some amount of suffering in the world through our unconscious actions, we can begin to see people’s highest potential.

Compassion means to suffer or feel with and it is a process of expansion. In Buddhism there is the idea of ‘Bodhicitta’ or the awakened heart.

We start with feeling compassion for our nearest and dearest. However, the real practice comes in continuously expanding that circle of compassion until it becomes unconditional – then our heart has fully awakened. Everyone has the potential to evolve and begin the process of waking up.

Most people start by caring for friends and family – then perhaps start to expand that circle to include those with fur, four legs, hooves and paws, scales and wings.

Can we include even the exceptions that are so easily made – for example, the humans we see engaged in harmful and destructive behaviour?

The practice is in finding the walls and putting cracks in them until they crumble. If we can approach those we see causing harm with the intention of awakening their compassion, instead of shaming and blaming, we are truly winning the battle.

Active and provocative resistance

Having said that, loving thy enemy, as Martin Luther King often preached, doesn’t mean we don’t act but, rather, we act from a place of love.

It’s about refocusing our attention on the one who is suffering and working to alleviate that suffering, without lashing out in rage at the one causing that suffering.

In Martin Luther King Jr’s book, Strength to Love, he writes: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that… Love is the most durable power in the world.”

It’s hard work and I can’t always summon the consciousness to not fall into reactivity, but that’s why activism can make a very powerful spiritual practice. In transforming our internal world we become much more effective at contributing to humanity’s evolution away from being driven by self-interest, aggression and exploitative practices and toward a culture driven by compassion.