I stood there frozen, my eyes glued to the screen as I watched the frustrations and desperation of hundreds of years of oppression boil over on live television. My mind raced, “Another man murdered, at the hands of police violence. Another black man taken from his family.” It doesn’t matter that we are all still fighting an invisible enemy that kills indiscriminately. People of all ethnicities have gathered across the country, in close proximity – if necessary, despite the dangers of COVID to demand that things change.
Over the next few weeks, I saw the moments the peaceful protests become violent; I watched agitators & anarchist take advantage of the opportunity to stir up more hate. My heart was heavy with the knowing that this was not the first time black and brown voices screamed out for change. I wondered if the outrage would last after the news cycle shifted.
I witnessed my white friends experience confusion, shame, and an awakening. Almost daily I wake up to a text from one of them asking “how are you doing?” Curious if I was “holding up okay?” They were feeling all the feelings and felt the need to do something.
I could spend a lot of time talking about what it’s like to be a black woman in America. I can talk about the different times at home and abroad I have been called the N-word. I can give you accounts of my own experiences of police violence or the many micro-aggressions I have encountered over the course of my life, but this article is not about that. This article is about how we start to rebuild, how we can grow into a place of true unity, and how the wisdom of Yoga can help us get there.
We often refer to the tree of yoga, as a way to describe the 8 parts of the yogic path. During this period of necessary and challenging transformation it’s no accident that we need look no further than the roots & trunk of the tree for guidance. There is no shortage of wisdom Yoga can offer us to help us keep fighting for racial equality as we individually work to influence positive change in our community through of our actions.
The Yamas & NiYamas teach lessons that are critical to supporting the fight for racial equality. These ancient concepts provide us with the important guidance we need to anchor ourselves in a place of self-reflection, accountability and responsibility to take action right now.
Here are 10 Yoga philosophies that will help you keep fighting for Racial Equality:
Lesson No. 1: Non-Violence Is an action verb.
Ahimsa: Non-Violence. There is no reason we should harm each other with violence. Martin Luther King was a fan of Ghandi, who was a yogi. It’s no accident that he was dedicated to non-violent protest as a form of political resistance. Change requires resistance. Yet resistance does not necessitate violence.
It’s also important to note that yoga does not teach us that non-violence means acquiescence. It is undeniable that racism, micro-aggression, blame shifting and silence are also forms of violence. Silence can be the most dangerous form of acquiescence since the wrong doer can assume you support their behavior as you quietly bear witness to their actions. Passivity is not an option, because Non-Violence is an action verb.
Lesson No. 2: Truth is not subjective.
Satya: Truth. Your ego wants you to make everything about you. In many ways that makes sense, as you are the person having the lived experiences in your body. Yet there are certain things in life that are not subjective. It is easy to take a position based on an emotion or opinion and defend it confidently. But what happens when the position you have taken is grounded in falsehoods and lies? You end up disconnected.
There are many who struggle to tell the difference between the truth and their subjective beliefs. The practices of meditation, self-education, reflection and honest conversation can help you begin to separate the truth from the messy subjectivity of individual belief.
We can agree objectively that Black people in America deserve equal treatment & protection under the law that they do not currently possess despite being citizens of the United States.
Lesson No. 3: We all have a responsibility to one another.
Asteya: Non-Stealing. You know fundamentally that stealing is wrong. Yet many fail to apply this to the greater context of humanity. Sure taking an object that does not belong to you is bad, but what about taking LAND OR HUMAN BEINGS? Of course you probably just audibly scoffed at the question. However America is stolen land taken from Indigenous People, the country was developed and built by stolen people forced into slave labor. The killing of unarmed black men, women, and children is just another theft.
Yoga demands you accept that you share this planet, country, and air with your fellow humans.
As a result you have a responsibility that extends out beyond yourself to your human community. Don’t be afraid to ask yourself: “what can I do to ensure that my behavior, choices, opinions and beliefs are not stealing understanding, justice, or healing dialogue from my community?” When it comes to non-stealing check in with yourself, early and often.
Lesson No. 4: Unity is our greatest weapon against injustice.
Brachmacharya – Unity, abstinence. Look at your hand. Open your fingers and look at your palm. Now ball up your fist. An open hand can strike but a fist is more powerful. You are an important finger on that hand, without you there can be no fist.
Yoga teaches us that we are all one. One breath, one energy, one consciousness shared over thousands of years and millions of beings. As technology develops and evolves your ability to promote unity grows exponentially. Use your platforms to promote unity, highlight voices of change, dispel illegitimate rhetoric, be brave and shine a light on injustice, and lastly hold those you know accountable.
Lesson No. 5: The safety of the group is more important than the comfort of a few.
Aparigrapha – Detachment. Clinging is bad when it relates to relationships and things. Clinging is dangerous when what your clinging to is your comfort, and it comes at expense of another’s safety. Unfortunately, there are numerous documented examples of this kind of clinging in action. One of the most recent and blatant was the video of Amy Cooper using her race, gender and privilege to lie to the police all in an effort to get a black birder arrested in central park simply because he asked her to leash her dog, all while their was a sign clearly indicating all dogs must be leashed less than 50 yards away.
Detachment is about understanding how desire influences your choices and behavior. It’s important to master your desire so desire doesn’t become your master. The practice of detachment requires for you to bravely leave your comfort zone as often as possible. Taking the time to put yourself in situations that require you to exercise compassion, empathy, and active listening are a great way for you to practice detachment. Open yourself up to have difficult conversations about race, reflect on the times in your life where you took no action, played the non-racist card or simply thought “can’t black people just be happy?” Those are all evidence of clinging, and as buddha said you got to “let that sh*t go.”
Lesson No. 6: Keep your side of the street clean.
Saucha – purity (of actions and intentions). Science & Logic tell us that you can’t control other people. All you can do is manage how you interact with them and control your own behavior. You can’t make someone else be a vegan or not litter, all you can do is follow your path and take heart centered action. Like your mother said, its important to lead by example.
Yoga teaches us that not only should you lead by example but that the example you set should be informed by the pure intentions. Shedding the attachment to your own personal desires, will help you to become as objective as you can and will ensure that your intentions have some purity.
Lesson No. 7: Its okay to have to start from scratch
Santosha – Contentment. Sometimes you have to start from the beginning, regardless of the work that has been done or the precedents that have been established. When something is broken you have to get rid of it in order to make room for something that will work.
Yoga tells us that each of us must work to cultivate a sense of contentment in any situation. Black & Brown people & Jewish people are an incredible example of this. The Resilience that is required to find joy, celebrate and create a vibrant culture while under the constant shadow of oppression & persecution is nothing short of a miracle.
If you’re someone who has never really been confronted with adversity and your life had been generally comfortable, then starting from scratch is probably extremely frightening. Yet you must remember that historically it is the clinging to the comfort of a few at the detriment of the many that got us into this mess. If this is you, your charge is to find contentment in the moment, to embrace the shift and to recognize that the discomfort is a good thing. The discomfort is an invitation for you to come back to yourself and choose to do what is objectively good for everyone, over what is only good for you. It is there, in the intentionality of your actions where you will find contentment.
Lesson No. 8: Change is not easy and will always require consistency of effort and intention.
Tapas – Discipline. Don’t you remember it was like the very first time you tried Warrior 3 pose? It was not easy and it was uncomfortable but you pushed through it. You pushed through because you were invested in the change that you knew would inevitably follow. The fight to end systemic racism and implicit bias demands the same discipline.
Know that this process is uncomfortable for everyone. If you are a white person it will probably be really uncomfortable for you. There is a chance you may not have ever been required to think about, process or confront the reality of your privilege on a daily basis in the same way Black & Brown people have to confront the reality of their discrimination. As my teacher says now is the time to “let the heat of the discomfort work on you”. You can do it!
Lesson No. 9: Be the Change you want to see.
Savdhayaya – Self Study. You can’t change the world around you until you change yourself. Self-Study and personal reflection are the keys to ‘being the change’. It becomes a lot easier to sit in the discomfort of reflection about systemic racism when you have first practiced sitting in the discomfort of self-examination.
One can not be outraged by the status quo, and scream for change if you have not taken the time to dissect what role your silence, complicity or willful blindness played in maintaining it. To Study ourselves is to look at our lived experiences and responses to them like items in a bag that we must remove one by one and look over thoroughly. Meditation & Journaling are a great starting point for self-reflection. Prompts like:
Which Yama & NiYama are you struggling with right now? why?
What has your experience with race been?
How often are you aware of your race? Are there people you could imagine have to be more or less aware of their race at any given time? Who? Why?
How do you make and/or hold space for black & brown people in your community?
Are you aware of discrimination when its happening, if its not directed at you?
Have you ever acted based on implicit bias?
It may also be beneficial for you to identify Safe Spaces both online and in-person where you can talk through some of the issues and challenges you may encounter as you engage in self-study. As one of my favorite teachers always says changes starts at hOMe.
Lesson No. 10: Anchor yourself in the support of the greater good.
Surrendering to the process is a huge part of yoga philosophy. Once you take action, discover the objective truth, accept your responsibility, embrace unity, place the safety of the group above you own comfort, keep your side of the street clean, understand that we have to start from scratch, give effort consistently not shying away from the discomfort you will inevitably feel, AND proactively be the change you want to you all you can do is surrender to the process. Anchoring yourself in the knowing that you have done all you can do and are willing to keep doing it is powerful. There is no need to worry or overthink. There is no concern about missing the mark, because although you know that is inevitable, you are so grounded in your commitment to the work that you can just let go and surrender.
Final Thought –
This is not easy work, but it is necessary work for all of us. The time for change is now. You can do this. The light in me sees the light in you…Namaste. Thank you for being brave enough to explore this. Thank you for taking the time to reflect. Thank you for taking the time to be present enough to admit your missteps. Your community thanks you. The Universe thanks you. I thank you.