On June 21st, we celebrate the annual International Day of Yoga. In honor of this day, we are publishing this inspiring essay by Sharon Gannon (cofounder of Jivamukti Yoga and spiritual activist) that reveals the heart and soul of what Yoga is all about.
yam hi na vyathayanty ete / purusam purusarsabha /
sama-duhka-sukham dhiram / so ‘mrtatvaya kalpate
The person who is not disturbed by happiness and distress and is steady in both is certainly eligible for liberation. —Bhagavad Gita 2.15
Everything in this material world changes. It doesn’t always change according to how we would like it to, but as a yogi we learn how to be steady and even joyful in the midst of upheaval. Happiness is our true nature, to be unhappy is to deny our true nature and instead choose to dwell in ignorance—avidya—identifying with our temporary body/mind self, a misperception of who we really are. From this point of view there is never any good reason to be unhappy. As Shyamdas said, “Our greatest wealth is the remembrance of who we really are.” To discover our connection to the eternal Self, to God, is the purpose of our lives.
Many years ago, I was invited to come for a few days to teach Yoga to a Buddhist teacher who was in the midst of a three-year retreat in the Arizona desert, where every six months he would give public teachings. I met many people there who had come to listen to his teachings. Several of them I recognized, having seen them in New York City attending classes at the Jivamukti Yoga School. When they encountered me they would say somewhat apologetically, “I love Yoga, but feel I need a spiritual practice to help me cope with the real issues of life.” It surprised me to hear that these people felt that Yoga was not a spiritual practice applicable to daily struggle and challenges.
Recently in response to the current events happening in the world—most especially the Covid-19 pandemic and racism in the US—a Jivamukti Yoga teacher said despairingly, “Yoga is not the answer to everything; now is not the time for introspection but to act.” I have heard similar responses from Yoga teachers and students over the years at other times of crisis—be they a personal crisis (for example when a loved one dies), a national crisis, (like the 9/11 attacks), or global (the devastation of our environment).
When overwhelmed by circumstances that appear to be out of one’s control it is an all too common response to throw Yoga out the window and adopt an attitude of anger, sadness and blame as if these emotions could bring clarity or practical solutions to the “real” issues at hand. The crisis we are all facing at this time is a spiritual crisis. If one feels that Yoga doesn’t have anything to contribute during a time of crisis than they must have a limited conception of what Yoga is and how the practice works.
Yoga means yuj—to yoke, unite or reconnect to or remember God, the eternal Self. There are many yogic practices that help to bring about this reconnection to the eternal source. Chanting God’s name, prayer, meditation, asana, to site a few. Any action if done with the intention to remember God can be a yogic practice including marching in the streets, providing food for the hungry and comforting the sick. But if action is motivated by anger and blame the action will not bring about a reconnection to God, but only reinforce the domination of the ego within a person. The ego, by its nature is selfish and incapable of compassion. Yoga practices help us to bypass the relentless demands of the ego, expanding our perception of self. The presence of God can be felt through compassion. We come to know God through compassion. Compassion is a yogic practice that leads to Yoga—to enlightenment. This process of transformation is spiritual activism. By relinquishing one’s own petty agenda, the individual becomes a spiritually activated instrument for God’s will (not mine but Thine be done). In the space of meditation or contemplation, where one can have darshan—see beyond judgment or where a person is able to shut up and listen, to that still voice within, they will find out “how” to respond compassionately to situations that arise.
Devdutt Pattanaik, in his commentary on the first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita speaks of the yogic development of darshan—clear perception that arises through compassion, “A world based on judgment evokes rage, life becomes a battleground where both sides feel like victims, where everyone wants to win at all costs, where someone will always lose. In judgment, the world is divided: good and bad, innocent and guilty, polluted and pure, oppressor and oppressed, privileged and powerless. In darshan, one sees a fluid world of cause and consequence, where there are no such divisions. A world created by observation evokes insight, hence affection, for we see the hunger and fear of all beings. Life becomes a performance on a stage. If you can empathize with the fears that make people heroes, villains and victims, then you are doing darshan. For then with compassion you can look beyond the boundaries that separate you from the rest.”
Negative emotions, like anger, sadness, confusion, despair, blame and the like cloud one’s perception of reality and disable one from acting from a place of serenity. It is from this place of calm clarity that solutions will be found and a new direction perceived. It is a normal reaction to feel angry and sad when thousands of people are dying from the viral pandemic, others have lost their jobs, and many are being violently abused, even murdered because of their color. Yes these feelings are normal for people, but a yogi must resist the seduction of negative emotions, which only heighten the polarity observed. A yogi is not a normal person, easily satisfied with samsaric existence. A yogi is interested in becoming a jivanmukta—a liberated soul.
Then what to do? What action is appropriate during times of crisis? Can you still take to the streets and protest? Can you still wish for a kinder world? Yes—if you are willing to be motivated by a power beyond anger and preference. Patanjali suggests in the first chapter, sutra 33, that when you encounter suffering, duhka you should meet it with compassion, karuna.
Compassion brings about the arising of enlightenment—seeing beyond the limits of one’s ego-encapsulated small self. But what is compassion? Is it the same as sympathy or empathy? No. Sympathy is to recognize that someone is in pain; empathy is not only to recognize the pain of another but also to feel it as if it is happening to you. Compassion includes sympathy and empathy but it raises the bar a few notches. A compassionate person recognizes that someone else is in pain and feels that pain but is committed to finding a way to alleviate it, understanding that when you relieve the suffering of another you will alleviate your own suffering as well. Yoga practices are designed to help one develop compassion and by means of compassion dissolve the illusion of otherness and all the prejudices that arise from that polarity.
As a person exercises compassion, as a practice, they get better at it and the result is that they grow into humility—a direction away from selfish ego concerns. To be humble is to be close to the Earth, unpretentious, to bend like a blade of grass to serve rather than expect to be served. It is possible to let go of the demands of the ego but it does take practice. The yogic nature is one of being a servant—to others and to God, rather than self-serving. As a servant you do your best while not being concerned with controlling the outcome of your actions. You do your best and let God do the rest—meaning that you act without selfish motives, trying to manipulate the outcome. This involves viragya, the yogic virtue of non-attachment. The Bhagavad Gita speaks of Yoga as the perfection of action. If we want to act perfectly in a time of crisis we cannot allow negative emotions like anger, sadness or blame to motive our actions, because if we do our actions will be imperfect and result in future suffering.
At this time of crisis all those who are acting selflessly, responding to the suffering of others with compassion and humility are coming closer to Yoga—to the remembrance of who they really are—to the reconnection with the atman (the eternal divine presence within.) Through service we understand that we cannot “help” anyone we can only serve. As we become a channel for service, the understanding of the yogic teachings that mysteriously speak of God as the doer begins to dawn. Through compassionate service the presence of God is revealed. When this encounter occurs it is felt as joy and with it comes the realization of grace and the only response is one of gratitude—grateful to the crisis for providing the opportunity to serve. This awakening to the joy of serving is what my friend, the Catholic priest, Father Anthony Randazzo calls, radical servant–hood, where you become a channel and are serving from the core, from the root of your being—from your soul, rather than your ego. The more you serve in this radical way the more fulfilled you become and the more able to serve you become. When you tap into the well of compassion you discover it is limitless—as it is the loving nature of God. As God spiritually activates you with compassion—your activism becomes for rather than against and you become clear, steady and joyful in the midst crisis, able to uplift the lives of others.
About the Author:
Sharon Gannon is a 21st-century Renaissance woman, an animal rights and vegan activist and a world-renowned yogini, perhaps best known as the founder, along with David Life, of the Jivamukti Yoga Method. She is also an accomplished writer, dancer, painter, musician and chef. Sharon has devoted many years exploring the role of diet in promoting physical, emotional and mental well-being as well as spiritual development. A student of Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati, Swami Nirmalananda, K. Pattabhi Jois, and Shyam das, she is a pioneer in teaching Yoga as spiritual activism. Sharon’s book Yoga and Veganism is a seminal work on the subject, exploring the relationship of veganism to the teachings of Yoga. Sharon is a musician and is a featured vocalist on many CDs including Sharanam, which is her 2010 solo album, produced by Frenz Kallos. She has produced numerous Yoga-related DVDs and is the author of several books, including Jivamukti Yoga: Practices for Liberating Body & Soul and Simple Recipes for Joy: More than 200 Delicious Vegan Recipes, a beautifully illustrated cookbook.