On Saturday August 13, 2017 Heather Heyer was murdered by a violent extremist. She was struck by a speeding vehicle driven through a crowd of counter protestors. Heather was standing in opposition to a march of the “alt-right,” a euphemism for violent extremists whom found their beliefs in fascist anti-Semitic rhetoric. In my understating, Heather was killed while standing in prayer, praying that society become open to understanding, to an understanding of self, others, and the true state of things. In the wake of the Charlottesville, VA protests that were witness to Heather’s atrocious murder that will be written into the long history of the American struggle for yet unachieved civil rights, many are preparing to open themselves to understanding. Here, I offer just a spark of light so that we can begin to see the face of understanding.
The path of understanding for our time (and all times) is called Yoga.
What is yoga? Later this month, I will begin training as a teacher of yoga, and have been asked in advance to answer this question. The following is my understanding as a practitioner of yoga and student of Buddhist thought. Yoga is a practice whereby one comes to egolessness, and in so doing realizes a state of unity with all sentient beings. This state is a realization of tathātā, or of becoming a tathāgata (Buddha), a being who understands the universal thusness that ties together all things; practice of yoga is the development of an understanding of the ultimate inexpressible nature of all things. Yoga is the practice by which individuals perfect themselves. It is a practice of the manifestation of pure light, a recalling of universal law. Here I am waxing on poetic, and I may seem out of touch with the reality of the oppression experienced by everyone (queer and/or trans, folks of color, black folks, the suffering of police caught in-between, the suffering of a lawyer crushed by student debt, the suffering of a neo-Nazi living with such hatred he feels compelled to drive into those most innocent), but I am talking about the reality of things. Through yoga practice, one begins to lose the artificial sense of self that has been created through hierarchical systems of oppression. We transcend the many identities we steadfastly ascribe to each day in ways that unchain us from our sufferings and allow us to touch the heart of the other who also suffers.
You may be thinking, “that was great, so yoga allows me to realize something powerful, but what does the practice actually look like, what do you do on the daily to get there?”
Yoga is not well understood by most, though we all have the potential inside of us to be a yogi, to be a Buddha. For centuries yoga has been both recorded and thought of (it is an oral tradition) as an practice whereby one leaves their family, their city, their community to achieve an otherworldly and esoteric state of spiritual enlightenment. This conceptualization of yoga and of Buddhism is incorrect, and is not right for our time. Siddhartha Gautama is the man recorded as the historical Buddha whom conceived of himself as a yogi and developed a practice to achieve understanding and to become undifferentiated from the one universal truth, which I translate as dharma. The Buddha is said to have sat beneath a Bodhi tree for several years contemplating universal truths, and then to have achieved nibbāna, or enlightenment, at a young age. For more than forty years afterward he set out to share what he found with the world, a world that looked very much like ours, one full of suffering, pain. It was not about leaving those who suffer without care, it was (and is) about showing up, calling in, and listening with compassion for the pain that each person suffers. It is a daily routine whereby one enters their community more deeply than they ever thought possible with a lens of pure compassion, and fierceness leading ultimately to a total merge with oneness.
Enlightenment, or nibbāna is a poor translation of an inexpressible state of egolessness that is beyond this place. That is perhaps why the achievement of enlightenment, as us 21st century folks living in the United States understand it generally, is not what the Buddha spoke on. The truth is, yoga is not a practice of complete hermitage, of hardening our hearts and mental space to the needs of the world. Yoga is quite the opposite, it is a practice of compassion for our neighbors, it is the practice of creating a socially just and verdant society. According to the late teacher Michael Stone, enlightenment is not a vertical transcendence of the suffering of our time (a redundant, racist, fascist USA), it is a horizontal rush forward into that suffering to dispel it through service.
What about critiques of Yoga as unconscious to social oppression, anti-blackness, etc.?
I have heard critiques of yoga that it is too rooted in what I will call the culture of corporate mindfulness, mainly that kind of yoga that is invested in spiritual materialism, e.g. throwing on a mala bead necklace, cute yoga pants and snapping an Instagram photo. Or when a socially oppressed person is told to simply change their mindset regarding their oppression (this may happen when visiting a therapist who is reciting a packaged statement on meditation that is rolled into the body of therapeutic practice known as cognitive behavioral Therapy or CBT). The lack of compassion many encounter when being told to “just breath,” is deeply flawed, and practitioners of western yoga students must understand and work to rectify that damage which has already been done.
We all have the potential to become yogis and buddhas, but it will require all of us creating a space where it is possible for everyone to achieve their potential to be in service (e.g. by being tireless in the removal of obstacles posed by patriarchy, ageism, and transphobia). Yoga practice it is not just for those with money to access a yoga studio where they twist their bodies into fantastic shapes to accrue clout on social media platforms, nor is it for the development of toned arms and tummies. Though many forms of yoga do involve placement of the body into āsana, and though I recommend doing so (really, it was the physical āsana that allowed me as a younger avowed agnostic to wake to my first spiritual experiences), yoga can be practiced wholly without the physical exercise you will encounter at most yoga studios in the United States. It does however require moving your body in service. Profound examples of this service: holding the hand of an aged friend, and breathing with them consciously. Yoga is breathing through the difficult engagement and education of a neighbor who is reluctant to accept that we live in a place that oppresses black bodies. Yoga is also holding a space to be completely changed by this same neighbor, understanding that their liberation is no different from your own, their suffering no than your own suffering.
Here I have shared on the reality of things as I have come to understand them to this day. I have offered you a very bare definition of engaged yoga that is far from perfect. The path to enlightenment, to realization, is Yoga. The path to realization is service to those in need, to all others. But, don’t let my words alone be that which assures you. In fact, my words cannot assure you. Practice for yourself and see. Stand in the street as Heather Heyer.