Our Current Challenge: Reflecting on Applying the Lessons of Yoga to the Events of 2020

To say the least, 2020 has been a roller coaster. The global pandemic was unexpected. It brought our country, and our world to a screeching pause. In the blink of an eye, our neighbors became both people to physically avoid, as well as our emotional lifelines. Tragically, many have lost family and friends to COVID-19 and the terms “hero” and “front line workers” took on new meanings. We quickly learned to live with masks of protection as well as a six feet of space between us.

In the midst of the global health crisis, another tragedy has come to light and the senseless killing of George Floyd became the straw that broke the camel’s back in a long line of atrocities committed by those who hate others based on the color of their skin. The evils of slavery still have a resounding echo and with each generation, we have to look at our role in how we have contributed to either the healing or the hurting of the racial divide.

Maya Angelou wrote, “The plague of racism is insidious, entering into our minds as smoothly and quietly and invisibly as floating airborne microbes enter into our bodies to find lifelong purchase in our bloodstreams.” These words are both haunting and accurate as we bear the burden of two separate plagues, one that is primarily physical, and another that is spiritual. COVID-19 named for the corona virus of 2019 has an all too familiar graphic of a red cell with several spikey crowns. Racism is the name for the ugliness that has plagued our country for centuries, and still has not been cured.

The two plagues have familiar images that we have seen daily. We have been bombarded with images of the red cell that bears many crowns, and even our children are familiar with the image. The spikey crown gets lodged in the hair-like structures of the lungs and makes it hard to breathe. The ugliness of racism is something that we feel in the same physical area of the body, the level of the emotional heart center, and it also led to the heartbreaking words of George Floyd saying, “I can’t breathe.”

Breath as Prayer, Breath as Life

As Yoga practitioners, our breath is our prayer, it is with us throughout our lives and we dance with the inhalation and exhalation in many different ways. In the lessons of Yoga, we have been taught different types of breathing techniques, and have learned that the breath is not only our life line, but helps to regulate all of our systems. When there is no breath, there is no life. On May 25, 2020, the world witnessed as George Floyd’s breath left his body and it replayed through all of our familiar cultural platforms, from YouTube to TikTok. It is human nature to want to share, and video is a powerful medium, which can also go “viral.”

In yogic philosophy, we are taught that we cannot control our circumstances, only our reaction to our circumstances. 2020 has been a year of many opportunities to learn this lesson again and again. We have no control over a global pandemic, nor did we have control over the four police officers that participated in George Floyd’s murder. In these instances, it can feel like controlling our reaction is not possible. Our grief, anxiety, and anger is so profound, that we have taken to the streets to say “no more.” Our reactions are evolving into conscious acts of activism as we step up and serve the whole.

This year, 2020 has been called “the great awakening.” We are waking up to the fact that we have to start thinking about others in a profound way. As yogis we have a responsibility to serve one another on the path of Karma Yoga (the discipline of selfless action). Our actions create a ripple effect and when we move from “me” to “we” in a mature and tangible way, we have an opportunity to empower others through the lessons of Yoga.

Our hearts hurt for the people that have lost their breath to COVID-19 and to the ugliness of racism. By helping to take care of each other’s hearts, we help take a step forward into a new chapter in human history. Each of us has a different skill set, each of us has different soul gifts to share. Whether you are teaching pranayama to help soothe a student’s frazzled nervous system, or protesting injustice in this world, your voice is needed. The importance of the breath is not just physical or technique driven, it is a gift to remember the simultaneous strength and fragility of life.

The two plagues have brought us back to the teachings of Yoga:
  • Nothing is permanent.
  • We cannot control external circumstances.
  • Service to one another is the path.
  • Breath is life.
  • We are all connected.

As we move forward into this new reality, each one of us has a role. When we lift one another we are in fact lifting ourselves. May we all care for one another and learn the lessons of the two plagues with grace and strength, even when grief and anger make it hard to breathe. COVID-19 has taught us that our breath is a gift and that we are all one. George Floyd’s death taught us that our breath is a gift and that we are all one. Now is the time for us to learn the lessons of Yoga and bring them forward into a new chapter.

About the Author:
Desi Bartlett MS, CPT, has been teaching health and wellness for more than 20 years. Originally from Chicago, she has a degree in kinesiology and her master’s degree in corporate fitness. Desi holds advanced certifications in Yoga, personal training, group fitness, and is a certified pre- and post-natal fitness specialist. For more information visit her website. (This article reprinted from LA Yoga magazine.)