III. Social justice and the yoga practitioner: a yogic view of disturbance

This is the third part of this four-part blog series. If you want to start at the beginning, read the articles entitled ‘Social justice and the yoga practitioner’ in reverse order.

A yogic view of disturbance – the macrocosm

According to yogic astronomy, the increasing number of disruptions we are seeing externally can be explained by the Cycle of Yugas. Yugas relate to periods of time, to a cyclical pattern, like a round of breath, a 24-hour day, a Period cycle, a season, but at a much larger scale. As with all cycles, there are four stages that lead from creation to maturation, destruction, then renewal. It can help to visualise this as an infinity loop, whereby after maturation a period of destruction occurs, sending us back around through the cycle. Like a forest that is growing dense and beginning to stagnate, once it is greeted with a disturbance, in the form of a pest outbreak of fire, space is created for new life and innovation. Indeed, disturbance underpins evolution.

The four Yugas are known as: Satya Yuga “the age of truth” or the golden age; Treta, defined by three quarters of truth and one quarter untruth; Dvapara, 50:50 truth and untruth; and Kali, the final age of darkness and ignorance. In the bible this is represented by the Four Horsemen of conquest, war, famine and disease and death. We are currently in the age of “strife,” “discord,” “quarrel” and “contention” – you guessed it, we are in the age of Kali. “Kali is a negative manifestation working towards the cause of ‘the end’ or rather towards eventual rejuvenation of the universe” (wiki.org). Oh great! As the age takes 432,000 years to complete and it started upon the departure of Krishna around the 18th February 3102 BCE, we are in it for the long haul.

A yogic view of disturbance – the microcosm

How did we get to this situation? According to yogic philosophy, the actions we have taken that have led to an unequal society are known in the yogic world as our karma. Karma is built of the collection of our past thoughts and actions known as samskaras. The deeper our belief (or store of samskaras) is about a particular experience, the stronger your tendencies to behave a certain way. If someone is mildly fearful of the other they might flinch when see that person walking down the street, if they are extremely fearful they may fight them or run away (engaging their reptilian brain, or monkey mind). Ultimately, though, these reactions stem from a disturbed mind – a mind full of delusion. Patanjali refers to these disturbances as ‘vrittis’, whirlpools. Other than correct knowledge (pramana), which is gained through direct experience, inference or scripture, everything else we think is incorrect (viparyaya), a fantasy (vikalpa), sleep (nidra) or memory (smrti).

Patanjali goes on to explain that the five obstacles to right knowledge are ignorance, attachment, aversion, ego and the fear of death. Similar conclusions have been drawn by psychologists. They say that negative reactions towards emerge from emotional incompetence, the need to belong (to feel loved – a basic survival need), projection (projecting your own shortcomings onto others) and acting out of fear (Abrams, A, 2017). Ego isn’t mentioned, although it is a concept psychologist have been familiar with for a long time and is interwoven into all of these. Ego is ‘i-ness’ – attachment to our experience and thoughts (you could even argue that this essay is a projection of my ego).

Emotional competence is a particularly interesting concept as I think it sounds most similar to Patanjali’s explanation of right knowledge. “Loma K. Flowers, M.D. defines emotional competence as the integration of thinking, feelings, and good judgment before action. This is more than think before you act—it is integrate before you act. It is understanding the origins of the negative emotions which, like all of our emotions, deserve respect and care as they are important to our sense of self.”

Flowers explains why this is so relevant in today’s society: “it is easier to believe fallacies than it is to think and understand yourself. People often swallow racist rhetoric and unspoken assumptions without examining the issues presented. They may find comfort in a belief in innate superiority and entitlement and be too terrified or satisfied with the status quo to surrender it without a safe alternative. Thinking takes work, lining up facts with feelings, and sorting out how much of your anger is about being laid off from your job [or bullying you have endured, etc] and how much of it is about others objecting to Confederate statues erected in the 1920s to symbolize white supremacy…The challenge is to link each part of every feeling to the right context,” (Abrams, A, 2017).

Even though progress has been made, with the passing of laws and the changing of policies, Resmee Menakam believes this merely intellectualised the problem of racism, rather than it becoming a self-realisation from within. This is precisely what Patanjali teaches us… and why we never quite have the words (the policies) to describe something when we have an embodied, enlightening, experience… rather we have to live out the experience. After truly experiencing a situation for what it is we are changed forever.

Menakam talks of this enlightenment much like that described in the Bhagavad Gita: “While we see anger and violence in the streets of our country, the real battlefield is inside our bodies — in … all of our bodies, of every colour. …If we are to survive as a country, it is inside our bodies where this conflict needs to be resolved… that the vital force [behind] white supremacy is in our nervous systems.” For any external problem to be resolved we have to go within and change ourselves first and foremost – and what better way to do that then through the practice of yoga. And I use yoga loosely here. Some people may not ever find their way to yoga, some may not want to. For a whole swathe of society they may be practicing yogis without any formal background – life experience may have been enough to lead them on the path towards enlightenment.

A yogic view of disturbance – the mesocosm

Neuroscientists have shown that even the most disturbed mind can change when they introduced the concept of brain plasticity (Kolb et al, 2003). It was once thought that our brain was somewhat rigid – we think a certain way and that’s it. However, we now know we have the ability to create new neurological pathways and change the way we think and therefore act in the world. What this means at an individual level is we’re not destined to think and therefore act a certain way forever, even if we have been for what seems like our whole life. However, we also have to see individual experience in the context of interdependence. As mentioned before, our suffering is also the suffering of others, and the same goes for liberation. Kemet yoga has something to teach us here as when we start to make the connection between interdependence and the evolution of the human race we start to see how we may carry the trauma, and joy, of our ancestors throughout the generations.

We all experience trauma, whether it be from this lifetime or a previous. In the case of racism, it has been felt by black, indigenous and people or colour (BIPOC) for so long that much of their pain has been decontextualized. And according to Menakem, trauma passes through as many as 14 generations: “If my mom is born, as a black woman, into a society that predicates her body as deviant, the amount of cortisol that is in her nervous system when I’m being born is teaching my nervous system something”. He continues: “Trauma decontextualized in a person looks like personality. Trauma decontextualized in a family looks like family traits. Trauma in a people looks like culture…”.

Due to this collective psyche in our cultures, it takes a lot of unlearning and retraining to untangle ourselves from group think (and action) at this scale. As is the case with any -ism (dogma), there are generations of texts, policies and laws that have all been written and engrained in our collective consciousness that need to now be revised or thrown out as they are no longer serving us. Yet it is possible, as our current actions can influence what the future becomes. And big change often starts from the smallest of gestures.