As we move into the tail end of summer, I can't help but sense a little bit of unrest. Aside from the unseasonably mild, cool temperatures, this summer season has been a tumultuous one. Injustice and discord in Ferguson ,MO, fighting in Ukraine and Israel, an Ebola outbreak, and some shocking celebrity deaths come to mind. On a more personal scale, many of my close friends, family members, and colleagues are experiencing upheavals in health, relationships, careers, and projects. Simply put, I've found the typical ease of summer to be lacking.
Especially significant to the yoga world, we experienced the death of B.K.S Iyengar a week ago. Attributed with bringing yoga to the Western world, Iyengar believed that yoga could be practiced by anyone, regardless of any physical or mental challenges. Particularly influential was his introduction to using props (blocks, straps, etc.) to achieve better alignment in yoga postures.
I'd like to share this section of this New York Times article about his death:
“We were just coming out of the ’60s change-your-consciousness thing, and many of us were in our heads, and wanting to meditate, and reach Samadhi,” or enlightenment, Patricia Walden, a longtime student of Mr. Iyengar’s, said in an interview in 2000. “Iyengar was, like, ‘Stand on your feet. Feel your feet.’ He was so practical. His famous quote was, ‘How can you know God if you don’t know your big toe?’ ”
Were it not for his celebrity in the West, Mr. Iyengar would hardly have gained a reputation in India, said Latha Satish, who heads a major yoga institute in the southern city of Chennai.
“He was at the right time at the right place; he would not have survived here,” Mr. Satish said. In India, he said, “everybody was interested in Western education; yoga was not so popular.” Mr. Iyengar’s trademark improvisations — like the use of blocks, blankets and straps to assist in holding difficult postures — were adopted “because of the need of students abroad,” he said.
I’ve had a lot of conversations recently about the elite, privileged status of yoga in modern culture. With so much injustice, violence, and suffering happening in the world, how can educated and wealthy Americans ignore the needs of others and spend their money instead on yoga classes? Is there some sort of inherent moral dilemma in choosing to spend one’s time stretching and “letting go” instead of spending spare dollars and hours in the fight for human rights? Are we hiding from bigger problems within the comfort of our own need to self-analyze and self-serve?
As out of context and over-simplified as these questions are, I’ll be the first to say that I really have no idea how to answer them. The issue of a human obligation to aid economic and racial injustice is simply too complex for one person to answer in a Sunday morning blog post.
What I do know, and what I think Iyengar knew, is that the yoga practice is a transformative one. By examining the self in physical, mental, and energetic capacities, I believe yoga teaches useful skills in life off the mat: empathy, forgiveness, tenacity, the ability to pay attention to details, skills of discernment and decision-making, how to listen, how to see subtleties and interpret cause and effect. Iyengar gave Western practitioners blocks because he saw a need for them. As teachers, where do we see a need for our skills in a world full of immense suffering and inequality on an immediate and global scale, as well as in a world full of seriously over-stressed, technologically saturated, and unhealthy (albeit comparatively rich) Americans?
Interestingly, in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the 8 Limbs of the Yoga Practice begin with codes and guidelines for ethical living, or, in essence, how we relate to other human beings. I believe our relationship to self and other is intricate and multi-directional. We cannot love and serve others if we do not know how to love and serve ourselves, and vice versa. The yoga practice gives us tools to navigate this scale from out to in.
As I begin to make preparations for fall amidst a late summer that has been less than joyous, I am challenging myself to look at yoga and the needs of others on both an intimate and large spectrum. Even as I say that, I’m not sure what it means. While certainly opinionated, I’ve rarely ever been an activist. Perhaps I’ve never thought that I was the one for the job, or perhaps I’ve been living with my eyes half-closed.
However, I do know that to whomever I’m teaching, this practice does not belong in a bubble. Forgiveness, empathy, and the ability to deal with fear are not elusive ideas belonging only to those who have the time and privilege to practice them. These are concrete and necessary aspects of a peaceful and equal world.
I’m not sure of the yoga community’s role in meeting the enormous needs of the world, but I think this community is definitely capable of discussing it. So here’s to preparing for fall as gentle warriors.
- Katherine Moore