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Newtown: Are Yogis Powerless?

December 20, 2012

Buddha The terrible tragedy in Newtown CT has left many of us feeling powerless,  terribly saddened, even frightened.  Signing petitions, sending condolences and making donations to support  organizations that address underlying issues of  violence, mental health, community dialogue and school safety are concrete actions we can take to be part of the solution even when we are at a distance.

But does anything we do as yogis help? Does our practice on the mat have any impact?

In the United States, we tend to divorce yoga from its historical roots in order to make it more acceptable. secular and welcoming, to the point that yoga is framed simply as “great exercise” or “stress reduction”, far from its more integrated history in philosophy and tradition.   Perhaps remembering a little of yoga’s traditional roots can shed some light on the questions our nation is now asking itself in the wake of Sandy Hook.

Asanas (physical postures) are but one of eight “limbs” of yoga that also include meditation, ethics and breathing.  For a moment, let’s focus on the limb of yoga known as Yama or morality.

According to the teaching of Patanjali, there are five core principles that make up this ethical dimension of yoga: ahimsa (non violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (sexuality morality) and aparigraha (absence of greed).   How might we apply these, as yogis, at a distance, to Newtown?

First and foremost, we must think deeply about any violence in word, thought or deed that we are ourselves proffer in the world and work to eradicate it.  Individuals shape a culture.  Swami Sivananda said:

Ahimsa or non-injury, of course, implies non-killing. But, non-injury is not merely non-killing. In its comprehensive meaning, Ahimsa or non-injury means entire abstinence from causing any pain or harm whatsoever to any living creature, either by thought, word, or deed. Non-injury requires a harmless mind, mouth, and hand.  Ahimsa is not mere negative non-injury. It is positive, cosmic love. It is the development of a mental attitude in which hatred is replaced by love.

I do not know if we effect the cosmos when we commit to ahimsa, but I do know we effect our home, family, friends, community and perhaps nation when we think and behave based on the principle of non-harming.  Further, in the wake of this tragedy we have already seen rhetoric that aims to spool up “us versus them”-ness.  Here, every yogi can make a real contribution to dialogue, respect and good listening.

At the same time, it is imperative that we speak from our satya – our truth: in dialogue, letters to the editor, donations to organizations that speak our point of view.  Allowing only those with extreme positions to hold forth, unaddressed by a multiplicity of voices, discounts our satya.

Finally, aparigraha means the absence of avarice.  One way into this yama is to consider how very often, where there is a tragedy of this nature, we want to pull behind closed doors and protect “our own”.  Of course this may be necessary, but perhaps it can be done in a spiritual awareness of greater largess: not only protecting I, me and mine, but we, our and us.   A Catholic priest friend of mine frequently reminds us that “I” “me” and “mine” do not appear in the Lord’s Prayer – only we, our and us.  Ask: what do I protect and defend my own, but also: how do I help protect the children (in this case) who are not mine but who are part of my world?  Only when we see ourselves as an integrally connected part of the larger whole do we avoid aparigraha.

All of this can come from action on the mat. Pay attention particularly during heart opening postures (fish, camel, cobra and the like) with the intention to open the heart to the yama of ethics.  Devote some time in practice, or before, or after, to recommitting to your ethical ideas with a focus on self as part of the broader community and world.

Yes, we practice for ourselves, and we may not be able to effect distance places, but we can, beginning on the mat and moving outward, effect directly the qualities of interaction and responsibility for a greater whole.  In these ways, yogis can be powerful shapers of collective truth and indeed effect a greater whole.

By Rabbi Chava Bahle

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