Understanding the Yoga-Sutras
Yoga as a Social Movement
by M. Govindan Satchidananda
For more than 100 years, Indian
Yogis have been teaching in the West. Their influence has been
profound, despite the fact that there has been little acknowledgement
of this by historians, sociologists, politicians or the media.
Where the influence has been noticed, for example, by the leaders
of Western religious institutions, it has been usually in the
form of alarm. Western religious institutions have felt threatened
by the teachings of Yoga, fearing that they will lose influence,
or out of ignorance, that there is something harmful or un-Christian
about an Eastern spiritual practice.
This is really nothing new.
Organized religions have always sought to maintain their power
base and to increase their influence at the expense of their members.
It is in the nature of any institution to put its own needs and
position ahead of the needs of its members, for which it organized
originally. Organized religious institutions are fear and guilt
based enterprises, which maintain their power by first warning
of the danger of hell, the devil, or damnation, and then offer
an insurance policy against such imagined threats, usually a set
of beliefs or rituals which are supposed to nullify the effects
of one's bad behavior, termed "sin" in Western circles,
or "karma," in eastern circles.
Those who follow seriously a
spiritual path, however, find themselves on a mostly solitary
route. While they may have fellow travellers or guides along the
way, this usually occurs only for relatively short periods. When,
historically, they have joined to form monasteries or communities,
they may have been tolerated by the prevailing religious institutions
around them for awhile, but not trusted. This can be seen, for
example, in the case of the empty monasteries all over Italy today.
Four hundred years ago, they were filled and vibrant with mystics.
However, if you are a mystic, you do not need a priest, much less
a pope, because you can communicate directly with the Lord, through
the contemplative methods of your order. So, while tolerated for
a time, such communities were not encouraged.
Mystics, which is the Christian
term for Yogis, are not unaware of society's ills. Nor do they
ignore them. Because of their expanded consciousness and opened
heart chakras, they are even more sensitive than most. But how
can they express themselves in contemporary society? Mystics are
generally looked upon with much suspicion, and because of the
practices and experiences, even with fear.
How then can the modern mystic,
as solitary as he or she is, expect to have any influence on society?
Must they organize to do so? Is Yoga an actual social movement,
or only potentially so?
"No man is an island"
said John Donne, the English poet, and this applies to the mystic
or Yogi. In Classical Yoga, the first limb, the "yamas"
or restraints, govern the Yogis social behavior: non-harming,
non-stealing, non-lying, greedlessness and chastity. These are
observed not to satisfy some moral principles, but because their
observance is both a pre-requisite for and an expression of the
enlightened state. By observing them, one comes to experience
that there is no "other," but only One - the ultimate
The determined observance of
these restraints by a number of dedicated Yogis can and will have
a profound impact upon society. And this does not even require
that one become a political leader, as in the case of Mahatma
Gandhi, who was a Kriya Yogi, and the father of the non-violence
movement which gave birth to India's independence, the American
Civil Rights movement, and the ending of apartheid in South Africa.
In any social interchange, whether it is with family members,
work colleagues, clients, supervisors, or strangers, there is
an interchange of energy. That energy may be infused with love
and compassion, which is profoundly yogic by definition, or infused
with anger, greed, impatience, competition or antipathy. We feed
one another with our love and compassion, helping one another
to be who we truly are, conscious, universal beings, or we poison
one another with our egoistic tendencies. On the contrary, the
determined observance of their opposite, for example, by the extremists
in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in Northern Ireland,
the Catholic-Protestant conflict, produces only unending sorrow.
One can imagine that if the Palestinians had also adopted a non-violent
approach to national liberation, they would have gotten their
own nation thirty years ago.
Yoga is a social movement, for
it seeks to awaken and to transform one human being at a time
from the ordinary egoistic state. Our modern pluralistic culture
is largely inspired by the principles of individualism, materialism
and consumerism, which amount to a recipe for egoism. To the extent
that one practices Yoga, beginning with the restraints or yamas
(cited above) and observances, the niyamas (purity, contentment,
self-study, intense practice, and devotion to the Lord) one is
engaged in a kind of guerrilla war against the prevailing culture.
The word "culture" is derived from the Latin word "culte"
which means "worship." So, in our modern materialistic,
consumer, individualistic culture, most members of society worship
or value, above all, those things which are material, which can
be consumed and which enhance their feeling of being special.
A Yogi on the other hand values
or worships the Lord, the Absolute Reality, and this is found
within, in the spiritual plane of existence, initially, until,
in the enlightened state, one begins to perceive it in everything
transcendentally. He does not feel that he is anything special,
and does not even see himself as the "doer." The Yogi
recognizes the hand of the Lord guiding and empowering at every
How to change this perspective
is the concern of Yoga, and while it is the responsibility of
each practitioner to raise himself up (by his own efforts) there
is an undeniable aid, which is provided between members of the
Yoga community or sangha. The word sangha, or in Tamil, sangam,
means literally, the place where rivers meet. So, each of us is
a river, in this sense, and when we meet there is an exchange.
When a person is discouraged or confused, and this may occur even
in the case of Yoga adepts with much experience, the presence
of fellow Yogis, will usually serve to heal or inspire. While
this exchange is most clearly seen in the exchange of vital energy
between two people, a kind word or thought on the mental plane,
a bit of advice on the intellectual plane, or a smile and expression
of joy on the spiritual plane may be enough to remove the discouragement
or confusion. It is therefore essential that all practitioners
of Yoga, not isolate themselves as a rule. By sharing their love
and compassion they learn to integrate their spiritual realizations
at all levels of existence, to overcome egoism, and to serve as
a pure instrument for the Divine, in bringing about a more compassionate,
conscious and Divinely inspired society.
While as many as 20 million
people in North America, by some estimates are now practicing
Yoga, and ninety percent of these practice it only as a physical
exercise, this does not mean that the influence of Yoga is limited
only to the fields of health or physical fitness. If one continues
to practice Yoga, the effects begin to include the nervous system
and the mind, and consequently there is an expansion of consciousness
into the spiritual dimension. This occurs even without trying,
as a natural and spontaneous effect. What begins as a physical
need, or a means to control the effects of stress, eventually
becomes a very personal spiritual path. A spiritual path leads
one to increasing levels of personal freedom from the round of
habitual tendencies fostered by our social conditioning. As we
begin the constant practice of detachment (vairagya) we begin
to let go of what we are not, including our social conditioning,
and experience who we truly are. The experience of Self-realization
replaces the confusion of egoism, the habit of identifying with
what we are not: thoughts, emotions, memories, habits, sensations.
As our consciousness expands we become a witness, and perhaps
the Witness. "I am a man, a professional, black, white or
Asian" says the ego. "I am That I am" says the
awakened Yogi. The social implications of such a change in consciousness
is profound and wide-ranging. Not only does the Yogi become a
source of peace and well-being for those who enjoy his or her
company, but a dynamo of energy, guided by unusual clarity and
insight. Such a person can and will act as a powerful agent for
the Good, solving the problems of this world in a spirit of compassion
We live in a period of history
wherein the interdependence of everyone on the planet has never
been so great. This social crisis, wherein a flu epidemic or an
act of suicide in one part of the world, can instantly affect
the economy and political stability of society on the other side
of the planet, requires nothing less than the discipline of Yoga
by millions of inspired practitioners. The media has become the
greatest tool of those who would seek to terrorize society. The
greatest defense against terrorism is Yoga, for it strikes down
at its source the fear which permits terrorism to be effective.
Fear is simply imagination of the possibility of suffering, without
evaluating the probability of its occurrence. This requires mental
discipline, the practice of detachment, and the calm clear thinking,
which Yoga inspires. Furthermore, the societal effect of one Yogi's
positive thinking or blessing, is much more powerful than the
dispersed negative thinking of a thousand ordinary folk.
May Yoga practitioners all come
to recognize the power that they have to bring peace and enlightened
solutions to the world's diverse problems, in every moment and
Copyright 2003 M. Govindan. All rights
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