The world feels pretty upside down at the moment: the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, George Floyd’s death in the USA and subsequent uprising against systemic racism, to name but a few of the huge issues facing us across the world.
Wondering what all this has to do with yoga? Here’s an introduction to the Yamas – the ethical codes guiding our interactions with others.
In the world of yoga here in the West, we can be guilty of spiritual bypassing (using spiritual ideas to avoid engaging with difficulties), and overlooking the part we have to play in dismantling social inequality and injustice. Some people reduce yoga to the physical practice of postures (asana), and lack understanding as to why social justice is relevant to our practice, brushing it off as “politics”.
But in fact all this is part of yoga. Because yoga is about wholeness and union between body, mind and spirit, and between ourselves and all things. The Yamas form one of the eight limbs of yoga from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The Yamas are a moral code of conduct for interacting with others, and they are just as relevant to our engagement with social justice in our world as they are to our daily interactions
Ahimsa (Non-harming or non-violence)
This one is key. If we’re not practising ahimsa (non-harming / kindness) then I’m not sure if we’re really practising yoga. When I say practise, I don’t mean are we being kind all the time…but are we practising being kind? That means trying, most likely failing (often), but acknowledging those failures, apologising for them, and trying again the next day. It means striving to be kind in our thoughts, words, and actions. To our children, partners, families, and friends; to acquaintances, strangers, and those we disagree with or find difficult to understand; to the environment, animals and natural world; and to ourselves.
Are we being truthful with ourselves and with others? The popular face of yoga is overwhelmingly white and middle class. As a white, middle class yoga teacher, in what ways might I be perpetuating injustice, inequality, and racism? We have a lot of self-education to do, to understand people’s experiences of racism close to home and in our yoga classes, rather than acting like it’s something that only happens elsewhere. Can we be more honest about our lack of knowledge and understanding? And when we know better, can we do better?
Non-stealing doesn’t just mean not physically stealing money or valuables. It’s much more subtle than that – how might we be stealing time, energy, or attention from others? In the context of the Black Lives Matter protests, this could include general handwringing and public self-admonishment (rather than listening to and giving space for the voices of black people), or arguing about how “all lives matter” (yes they do, but that’s totally missing the point, please do some research if you’re not sure why). And non-stealing also reminds us to be aware of cultural appropriation – are we only choosing the bits of yoga that serve our purpose or make us feel good about ourselves, eroding yoga’s origins and meaning? Check out Everyday Feminism’s brilliant article on cultural appropriation in yoga for more on this.
Brahmacharya (‘Right use of energy’)
This Yama was traditionally understood to mean celibacy, but more broadly it is about the “right use of energy”. I usually interpret this to mean focusing your energy on the things that bring long term happiness and joy, rather than short term or momentary pleasure, as well as things like prioritising friendship over the need to be “right” during an argument. In the context of social justice it could mean focusing on our own sphere of influence in order to effect most change, rather than despairing about the state of the world. Seemingly small actions can have a ripple effect, and might include self-education, having uncomfortable conversations with family and friends, the books we choose to read to our children, making ethical lifestyle choices, or volunteering in your local community.
Greed has a lot to answer for, including slavery, colonisation, exploitation, climate change and environmental destruction. White privilege is a history of getting more than our fair share. The practice of non-greed asks us how we might redress the balance. Where can we see opportunities to give? Not just money, but also our time, kindness, attention, help, a platform, support and back-up. Where can we see opportunities to step back and be silent so that others might have a voice? How can we live more simply, be happier with less “stuff”, and remember there is more than enough for everyone?
I am not suggesting I do all of these things right…far from it. The Yamas are a simple list, but they are by no means easy to incorporate into our lives.
And that’s why, along with the other limbs of yoga, they are a lifelong practice.