By Ed Staskus
“Anarchy is the only slight glimmer of hope.” Mick Jagger
In the 21st century yoga has flipped over onto its head. It has gone the voice on a soapbox. It has gone bully pulpit. It’s gone do-gooder.
It has lost its mind.
After more than five millennia of minding its own business, it has lately been sticking its nose into everyone else’s business. The first of the eight limbs of yoga are about giving peace a chance, don’t steal the other guy’s stuff, truthfulness, the right use of energy, and self-reliance. There isn’t a word about consciously deliberately engaging with the wider world through good deeds.
Salvation through good works is a Judeo-Christian conceit, not a yoga concept. The Epistle of James makes it plain that “faith without works is dead.” That’s the profit in doing good. In the Jewish tradition, mitzvah means doing something kind charitable beneficial from religious duty. Even the Puritan work ethic is conceptualized as a duty that benefits both the man and his society as a whole.
In the beginning yoga was about looking up at the stars. Then it became suppressing the activities of body mind and will so that the self could realize its distinction from them and find liberation. Later it became a discipline that involved meditation, breath control, and bodily exercise postures for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Now it’s connect participate get involved.
“Yoga is something we do to connect and engage with the world,” says Kate Saal, a teacher and educator at One Flow Yoga in California.
When did that happen?
It happened when yoga sprang to life in the Land of Californiacs in the 1970s, but it happened more than ever in the new millennium when Seane Corn, Hala Khouri, and Suzanne Sterling dreamed up Off the Mat Into the World. It is marketed as a bridge between yoga and community action and a broader expression of service on the planet. The organization works tirelessly to “train leaders worldwide in social change.”
Although worldwide is everywhere, and everywhere is too much to handle, the activist Seane Corn believes everyone needs to start somewhere. “What are you doing for the people in your own backyard” she asks, getting you started. It’s not just hashtag activism, either. She means make things actually happen in real life.
Off the Mat Into the World is Karma Yoga writ large for the brave new world.
Karma Yoga is doing your duty, whether “as a homemaker, carpenter, or garbage collector, with no thought for one’s own fame, privilege, or financial reward, but simply as a dedication to the Lord,” says Harold Coward, a scholar of bioethics and religious studies.
It is the “disinterested action” idea found in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, as well as in yoga. However, in the yoga tradition, it is derived from the Bhagavad Gita, an epic poem composed for the benefit of the warrior class back in the day. Its goal was to get the troops back on the battlefield for the next day’s fighting. The reasoning was simple cunning brazen.
“Set firmly in yourself, do your work, not attached to anything. Remain even minded in success, and in failure. Even mindedness is true yoga,” says Krishna with a straight face.
It’s Uncle Sam, paws on the reins, in a golden chariot.
The truth often depends on a walk around the lake, or a good nap, not necessarily blood and guts, as gods and world leaders would have it. It isn’t always what’s right, either, no matter the medals on the chest of the madman at the front. The truth isn’t always the gospel truth.
The reason we have breakfast lunch dinner and practice on our own mats is so we don’t die of true yoga.
Yoga used to have its hand on the gospel plow. Now it’s full speed ahead, two hands on the steering wheel. Instead of making you a better person, it’s make the world a better place. The small portrait of the guy or gal on the mat has been replaced by “See the big picture!”
There’s the Purple Dot Yoga Project battling domestic violence. There’s the Yoga Bridge supporting those healing from cancer. There are the Yoga Gangsters who “utilize their thoughts, words, and actions to empower humanity.” It’s a tall order, but desperate times demand desperados.
Yoga supports many causes, giving back to the community, helping those who are less fortunate, such as the St. Jude Medical Center, Advance Housing, Ronald McDonald Charities, iFred, and Prevention Works. The practice has even offered a helping hand to the Council for Prostitution Alternatives.
Searching out alternatives, however, begs the question, why is it punishable to get paid for an act that is legal if done for free?
Off the Mat Into the World has expanded yoga from transforming ourselves to transforming our neighborhoods, nation states, and the world. “Rooted in compassion and connection,” they say, “we are called to awaken to suffering and take action in response, creating a peaceful, just, and connected global community.”
Although get up stand up is yoga, getting up and standing up for a just peaceful connected global community is not necessarily yoga practice, unless you say it is and go on missions of mercy no matter what. In the past fifty years-or-so yoga has been co-opted by corporations, the military, and western culture. The latest Johnny-on-the-spot is the Good Samaritan.
What yoga has to do with the global community is moot, open to debate. What yoga has to do with a person’s essential being is an open and shut case. Yoga is more in the way of an anarchic undertaking than a recipe book of groupthink or mother knows best. The practice is not a team game, no matter how many yoga studios and retreats get us all on the same page.
Even the Boy Scouts, paradoxically, believe the same, even though they gather in troops. “Character training is to put responsibility on the individual,” said Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the scouts. Individuals have to make the effort to define values and principles for themselves, apart from man-made authority and teamwork.
Anarchists, like yogis, at least the one who used to stare up at the stars in the sky, do not believe the collective needs of the group are head and shoulders ahead of their individual interests. When you’re one of the gang, you’re in a gang. Who needs gangsters? Playing the gangster game is the same as playing the society game, just with slightly different rules.
Although anarchy has long been regarded as mayhem, nihilism, and lawlessness by the forces of law and order, it is more the case that it is a belief in the absolute freedom of the individual, regarded as a societal and political ideal. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines anarchy as “an absence of law.” That is even though, if there was ever an anarchist on the planet, Jesus was the one.
The brain wave of anarchy is that individuals aren’t made to widen the scope of society, but that society is made to widen the choice of individuals. Anarchism strives to dream up a society as efficient as possible, leaving it at that, so that society can provide individuals with the widest range of choices. Anarchy comes from the word anarchia, meaning the absence of government. Anarchists believe they don’t need policemen to make them behave.
In other words, good people don’t need laws, while bad people won’t obey them. Spend enough time on a yoga mat by yourself and you’ll become an anarchist sooner or later. If everybody got down dog there wouldn’t be any need for laws line-ups judges jails the end of the line.
The flaw of the Good Samaritan is that they, like the state, like its agents the agencies of government, like its enforcers the forces of law and order, like its arbiters the halls of justice, believe they know what is best for you. Anarchists, on the other hand, don’t stick their noses into other people’s business. They don’t make causes out of thinking they know what is best for one and all.
“God helps those who help themselves,” said the political theorist Algernon Sidney.
The same as anarchia, Sidney’s well-known phrase originated in ancient Greece, the first democracy. Athenian direct participation democracy had more in common with anarchy than any modern bourgeois democracy. It was bottom up. Today’s state is top down. Even our day-to-day sustenance is contrived as the result of trickle down. Everyone, even the rich, is trying to help you out, our leaders proclaim. Republicans and Democrats alike fight it out for the right to say the same thing.
Fight for your right to belong to the wrong party.
Yoga practice is a party of one. On the mat doesn’t have anything to do with anyone else, not your neighbor, not the brightly colored flag you wrap yourself in, and not the world. When Off the Mat Into the World says it is getting off the mat, they mean exactly that, however much they don’t mean it. Socially conscious causes have nothing to do with yoga, which is a living current of consciousness within the individual self.
Just like yoga isn’t exercise, chaturanga and vinyasa and twisting and turning, it isn’t something you do for others, either, jetting off to third-world countries to eradicate malaria, or digging wells in sub-Saharan Africa. Yoga is who you are, or who you want to become, like the anarchist looking for freedom. It isn’t feeling good because you’ve done something, done good works, made the world a better place to live in.
It isn’t the narcissism of accomplishment. It’s about making you a better person from the inside out. It’s better to be self-made than letting somebody else cook you up.
Even though we all live out in the open, yoga is not about shifting the perspective of the world. It’s not about doing right. It’s about getting right with yourself.
It’s about focus strength stamina all together tilting at windmills toward an inner shift of perspective. It’s letting Krazy Kat Krishna go his own way. It’s missing the big picture, but hitting the bull’s-eye.
It’s not about standing on your head. It’s about standing on your own two feet.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”