Following the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut this week, a number of students and yoga teachers have expressed shock and confusion and have written to me asking for guidance. Some have said they “feel at a loss.” Some have voiced anger and hate towards the government. Some wonder how to respond: by advocating for stricter gun control, by forgiveness, by surrender? Here are my thoughts from a yogic perspective:
Surrender, yes, but don’t surrender to anything less than God—the eternal Self, the Divine that connects us all, That whose eternal nature is Love itself, boundless and limitless joy. Make the discovery that if you can teach or practice yoga as spiritual activism then you are making a huge contribution toward a kinder world. Never neglect to keep the cruel and senseless suffering and exploitation of the animals and the Earth by human beings at the forefront of your thinking, of your words and of your actions. We as yogis can provide clear and sensible direction during this time of violence, global crisis, slavery, disease, gluttony, greed and mass extinction of life forms, with an estimate of 52 billion animals being slaughtered for food world-wide every year, with forests being cut down and rivers, oceans and ground water polluted, with soil and air poisoned, and with the ecological devastation connected to raising animals for food. Our planet needs Her yogis now—we can be Her champions—we have the knowledge of how to live in harmony with all of life and we must share that knowledge with others.
Stay on course; never waiver from your commitment to non-violence. Practice and teach sthira sukham asanam (PYS II.46)—our relationship to the Earth (meaning all beings and things) must come from a place of joy, selfless and other-centered. Our relationship to others must be mutually beneficial at all times. We must not become distracted, but remain steady and joyfully committed to happiness and freedom for all, no matter what—if, that is, we desire Yoga, lasting happiness, enlightenment, the great realization of the Oneness of being, living in the knowledge of how all beings are connected. As yogis we try to learn lessons from Mother Nature. To learn what it means to be sthira or steady, we could look to the planet Earth, who revolves in an orbit around the sun. A revolutionary is someone who revolves. Our planet Earth is a revolutionary who stays her course no matter what; she revolves in an orbit around the sun, and even if asteroids come barreling towards her she does not waiver or dodge, she stays committed to her course of action. This is what it means to be sthira or steady, this is what it means to be a revolutionary. Yogis must be revolutionaries, we must stay on course to achieve our goal. Our goal is freedom or moksha—liberation from the illusion of separateness. Seeing others as other and not as our own Self is the greatest obstacle to the yogic clear perception of reality. Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra says hanam esam klesavad uktam (PYS IV.28)—the greatest obstacle to the practice is one’s own prejudices. For a yoga practice to be effective it must help us destroy the illusion of otherness. Love is the most powerful weapon there is to overcome prejudices based on otherness.
As yoga teachers we must fearlessly teach the connection between how we are treating animals and human suffering. We must not be silent on this issue. We must teach others how to live simply, kindly and intelligently. Intelligence is measured in how many connections you can make. Make the connection to how we are treating the other animals to the horrible cruelties that are occurring now, including the tragedy in Connecticut. I think it is no coincidence that this shooting occurred in a place called Connect-icut—let us take this as a wake-up call to make the connection. We only have a short time to make a difference, we must not waste our lives. There is nothing more important for any of us at this time then to dare to care about the suffering and the happiness and liberation of others. If we cannot include other animals and the Earth in our view of "others" then we will remain short-sighted and continue to be horrified at the human tragedies that are occurring.
Imagine that we are all in a large car driving at a 100 miles per hour toward a brick wall and everyone in the car is arguing over the best seat for themselves. This is the state of the world right now. We have to stop. How? The first big step is to embrace veganism as a total lifestyle. Then we must teach others how to be vegan, which we can do by living our veganism openly and teaching through example even if we are not professional teachers. We must teach others how to make the connection between the violence we are perpetuating on animals and the violence we are seeing in the world. We must be brave enough to expose the truth about the violence, the deceit, the stealing, the sexual abuse and the unchecked greed. We must teach others the greater potential involved in choosing to be vegan—teach them that it is more than just a move in the right direction for their health, teach them that it is more than just extending charity to animals, teach them that their own happiness and liberation depends on it, teach them that the very future of life on Earth depends on it. Then we must find ways to take more and more direct action to abolish slavery, exploitation and hatred toward animals and the Earth. We must actually open cages and cut through the barbed wire. We must do this in a non-violent way with compassion for both the defenseless animals and the perpetrators—the animal users and Earth abusers.
Only a human shift to a more other-centered attitude will transform this world and dissolve the hell realms that we have created right here on Earth in the form of the farms, slaughterhouses, laboratories and all situations where oppression, cruelty and greed reign. I believe that with great love all is possible. Anger will only result in more violence. Why reserve our compassion for the oppressed and not extend it also to the oppressor, who will because of their actions become the oppressed in the near future? There is so much violence in the world today because the violence that goes unchecked and unquestioned. I am talking about the violence perpetrated on animals and the Earth every moment of every day, which forms the very foundation of our economy and world-wide culture. How can we ourselves be free of violence if we are not willing to stop being violent? Our actions are powerful—they create our reality. What we do will come back to us. If we want to dismantle this culture of violence, oppression and exploitation then we must root out the disease at its cause level.
We must help to awaken compassion—the ability to see ourselves in all others. To accomplish this we must awaken compassion in ourselves first and through our example we will teach others of its power. We must be bold in our call to action, we must encourage the students who come to us seeking yoga or our family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, to do something, anything, to stop the war against other animals and Mother Nature, because all the violence in the world that we see stems from this fundamental violence—this prejudice and hatred—toward animals. Seeing other animals as subhuman and the Earth as made up of inanimate objects existing to be exploited for human greed is a fundamental misperception that yoga can dissolve.
People say they want peace on Earth and their voices are filled with sincerity, but their minds, hearts and bodies are not. Until we purify our whole being we will not be able to truly say what we mean and mean what we say. We must rid our own minds, hearts and bodies of violence if we want to see a world free of violence.
People seem to enjoy obsessing about such things as this most current tragedy in Connecticut, wringing their hands, while they continue to eat the products of violence, wear the products of violence, entertain themselves with the products of violence, and even buy the products of violence with which to wash their hair. If people are angry, let them be angry with themselves not at some mentally disturbed young person. Why rage when you can do something powerfully positive right now?
We as individuals together make up the whole of reality. When we are aligned with Love, each of us is powerful beyond limits. Yoga if taught or practiced wisely with the goal of enlightenment, can awaken in a person their power, their innate Self-confidence, their connection to the Self, that which unites each soul with all of life. Yoga teachers have a unique opportunity because we have created a community. Every day people sit at our feet and listen to us talk. Those of us who are teachers must work hard not to take for granted the honor and privilege that our students have provided us. As the Hopi Elders have told us, "The time of the lone wolf is over." Now is the time to create satsang—to band together in radical, revolutionary communities and support and strengthen one another with the common goal of happiness and freedom for all.
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu
May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.