What is Yoga? More, what is the point in doing Yoga, particularly in a world where there is so much suffering, where so many people, animals, bio-, and even geosystems are treated by so many people as disposal, expendable, of value only to the extent that some use can be squeezed out of them, then to be discarded? What use is Yoga in a time and place where humans create political, social and economic systems that engender violence, that patently and explicitly don’t allow the vast majority of people to support themselves in any dignified sense? What’s the point in lying in savasana on the ground watching your breath or stretching yourself into difficult and demanding positions while wars rage and ecosytems collapse, while the suffering of humans, and of other creatures, just seems to intensify as time goes on?
I would say that the point of doing Yoga – and this is only my only interpretation – is that it allows you to become more compassionate about the situation that you find yourself in, and that this compassion extends endlessly. You practice Yoga not in a passive way, not as a form of escapism (although a lot of people, I notice, come to Yoga as a way of escaping, and see their weekly class as a sanctuary hiding them away from the rest of their difficult and demanding lives). But actually Yoga is a practice that allows one to become more compassionate, and therefore more able to confront the reality of all areas of one’s life.
Compassion is not a passive attitude. It doesn’t mean that we simply acknowledge and allow that everything that is happening is perfect just as it is. However, in a sense, radical self acceptance, radical acceptance of the situation we are in, is the fundamental point at which we must start before anything can shift. It is through this radical acceptance that we learn the importance of the way of observation, that is, of the manner, the attitude, with which we come to observe, and comment on, and respond to the situations we are in, intimate and distant. We learn very soon, and very clearly, that silence implies complicity, but also that rage, denial, blame and other means of deflecting attention from our own involvement are also acts of complicity.
What we need to learn to bring to light, without fear, anger, blame, or other incendiary attitudes, are all those systems we are involved in that do not allow us to take personal responsibility for our own situations, that deprive us of the opportunity to really experience what it’s like to be self responsible and autonomous, that limit the availability of foodstuffs that we have an opportunity to consume to foods that are violently produced in factory farms, or foodstuffs that have not sustained the soil and so are constantly depleting the source of that system of nutrition. We need to find a way to highlight how we are forced to use transport and energy forms that are exploitative and destructive, from production to manufacturing. For many of us, pointing this out has caused us great anger and great misery. To know that we are enmeshed in these systems, in turn, causes us to manifest this rage as screaming, swearing, or other more violent reactions, or withdrawal, addiction, depression, and these take a toll particularly (sadly) within the relationships we are most invested in. This is tragic. But I would venture, even at this dark moment, that Yoga can help.
Yoga has an important place in the kind of society we now find ourselves in. Without blame, without even evaluating whether what we are involved in is good or bad, Yoga is the practice of recognising that there are things that are good for the systems on which we depend. It is a practice of unblocking systems, and we can instantly recognise that this is mirrored in how we make the effort not to destroy the larger systems we depend upon, particularly richly biodiverse systems, because we need their graduated flow for our own survival.
The personal aspect reflects the social, and the social aspect reflects the environmental: what we do in one arena is always, in a sense, a mirror of what we do in another. Yoga gives an opportunity to practice and reflect on what we’re doing and how we’re doing it very honestly, from how we hold ourselves physically, to how we respond with our breath, to what is engaging us psychologically: where our minds are at. When we reflect very authentically, with great integrity, on what is occupying us, whether lust, greed, anger, hate, or even love, or joy, we become more skillful, through practice, at stepping back to compassionately observe the situation. The practice itself becomes a way of doing that enriches how we experience each step, each breath, each word, spoken and heard, each sight of clouds, sun or rain, each smell of the sea.
So, to conclude, I would just like to suggest that you find a way of practicing this mindful activity of watching as you move, as you hold yourself in one position and move into another, and this is enough, this is already asana practice. If you listen to, and then find yourself changing how you breathe (or, more accurately, find your breath regulating itself), then you are already practicing pranayama, breath control. If you practice focusing your attention on your senses, then, paradoxically, you are already practicing pratyahara, sense withdrawal, and if you practice watching your thoughts, and find the spaces between them developing and deepening, even as you stay fully aware and conscious of all that is happening, just as it is happening, then you have managed to achieve a state of dhayana, deep meditative, present awareness, in which stepping back happens all by itself.
To conclude, then, I wish you deep release from the suffering that is in your life, and I wish you to forgive yourself because the first step is always to realise, to become conscious of, the interconnectedness that automatically and inevitably implies that one action creates another, and forgiveness implies you are prepared to let go of this inevitability. I hope that the awareness of the interactivity of all that you are involved in becomes clearer and clearer to you, and that through this awareness, you manage, and have the strength to muster the great effort of attentiveness that is required in order to climb clear enough of your involvement to see it for what it is. Realising is a narrow band of awareness but it is the element you do have the capacity to alter. Simply through bringing your full awareness to this, just this, as it is, you turn reaction into realisation, and realisation is the key to self-responsibility, in which you become the creator of a revolutionary attitude, the attitude of total, honest compassion.