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Learning to Practice with Fierce Compassion to Prepare for a Changing World

By Scott Johnson

2016 – what a year that was! It seemed like the end of times and the beginning of times all at the same time. I now find myself here at the end of the year writing a blog that was to be a retrospective look at the past year, with a working title of Looking Back, Looking Forward – What can our practice teach us about the next year for us? Then November 9th happened. With the turmoil and dismay surrounding the election of Donald Trump, that title seemed a little skewed. But then I wondered, can our practice teach us something about this?

Change can be tough

Really tough. Yet yoga can teach us that change is the one thing that is consistent and being open and fluid to that change is what we are practising for. But perhaps reflect on this: Changing ourselves is easy compared to change when you have to consider the whole street, whole town, whole country, whole nation, whole continent or even whole culture you live in. When seismic decisions that effect change are chosen by a great number of people, and black and white choices are the options, we start to see that perhaps we aren’t as in control as we thought we were. Or so we seem to have seen this year anyway.

When I look back at 2016 in ten years’ time, it will be so interesting to see how I see it. Only time will tell. At the moment though, both personally and collectively, here is how I’ve seen it play out.

SYL in 2016

My personal life this past year has been more productive than ever, but with the challenges increasing. At SYL we had to move from our home of 6 years (Room AR2 in Boland House). I found this personally challenging as there was so much history and beautiful energy in that room. It was hard to let go. We moved to a brand new facility in the same campus but, due to an increase in rent, had to put our prices up for the first time in 7 years.

On the flip side we had the busiest workshop summer season ever, with so many people coming to see us at SYL. We had our Summer at Stillpoint where practitioners met teachers like Manju Jois, David Keil, Philippa Asher, Greg Nardi and Kia Naddermier. And more people found us for morning practice than ever before.

I was personally also being asked to travel a lot more to meet yoga communities nationally and to share my experience of yoga practice. So 2016 was a big year of change for both SYL and myself.

The world in 2016

Collectively, though, many of us could say that the past year has been the most radical shift of any year we can remember. With the UK choosing Brexit and the US electing Donald Trump, it felt like times changed forever in a few moments. This shift has led me to a number of questions that I’ve been pondering this month:

Can we really turn away from what is happening in the world at the moment and carry on like we always have?

Can we say that the election of Trump and the movement towards what seems an inevitable hard Brexit is something that yoga practice can prepare us for?

Can our chanting ‘aum’ at the beginning of the day allow us to move in the world? Just by practising yoga have we done enough?

Can our yoga practice alone shield us from rising inequality, division in society and families, increased climate change and a media that increases its vitriol and divisiveness by the week?

Does looking after ourselves mean we can look after the world?

The answers to these questions seem to have changed over the year. Perhaps the ultimate question is:

What is our yoga practice now preparing us for?

I think those of us in the world who are householders, have families and are bringing up children, and those of us who care about living in a world where there can be compassion, aren’t able to distance ourselves from this. In 2016 we are living in countries where things are unravelling. Walls are falling down and new ones going up. Change is coming.

How can our practice help us to become more engaged and active in this new world? How can our yoga practice wake us up to inequality? And, as a leader of a community, what can I do?

A learning curve

Personally, I feel I’ve been on a great learning curve over the last few months in relation to the past year. I’ve never been more interested in learning about politics, I am learning what ‘alt-right’ actually means and how to push up against it and how the ‘overton window’ is affecting the way our viewpoint of the world and its narrative is twisted.

This is something I’ve had to do because it affects me and it will affect my children. And as I’ve moved into this new understanding, my mindfulness teacher has pointed me toward my own white privilege and the inequality that is already systematic in our society and our culture. Even yoga culture. At times it has left me feeling overwhelmed and a little vulnerable. But at the same time humbled.

So, how can we tie this all back to a yoga practice, a yoga room, a yoga community? I ask again:

How can our practice help us to become more engaged and active in this new world?

Yoga practice

I’ve always tried to create SYL as a sanctuary – somewhere people can come to create a little space in their lives at the beginning of the day; supported to look a little deeper with the help of experienced and embodied teachers. And I do this so that people can learn that they can ultimately do this for themselves.

For me this is the incredible beauty of the Ashtanga yoga Mysore self-practice method, which we share at SYL. It’s a practice you can return to. A practice to measure yourself against, not as a sequence of postures but as a moving, embodied, relatable experience of breath, body and mind. To see where the imbalance of these three things lie and to train how to re-balance them.

Any yoga studio is just an empty room in a building where people come together and an intention is created – the intention of mindful, compassionate interaction with yourself. You can create this intention anywhere. And that’s powerful. We create the space so that people can discover, learn and nurture their own compassionate power.

Equanimity leads to compassion

In this recent podcast that I contributed to, where Peg Mulqueen from Ashtanga Dispatch interviewed my teacher and friend John Scott, John spoke of the four Brahma Viharas. These are Karuna (compassion), Mudita (Joy), Upeksha (Equanimity) and Maitri (Love). The conversation was rich in metaphor and story which, if you know John, is a very warm experience. But what Peg really connected to was the idea of equanimity.

John explained that in our little lineage that connects us back to Guruji we mirror the ability to be equal with one another. So we can help each other. John can help me and I can help John. That we as teachers are not teaching people but helping to introduce people to themselves.

“I have to introduce the student to their own teacher.” – John Scott (35:23)

Then we can begin to develop compassion for ourselves. Then we can develop compassion for others.

Fierce compassion

I think currently, and more than ever, we need to nurture and create that steady compassionate power in all of us. We need to be able to do this so we can meet the incredible challenges that are coming up in our societies and the increased impact of global climate change.

We don’t know yet what these challenges will bring. But we must meet them. And with these big challenges we need to meet them with compassion. Fierce compassion. Fierce compassion for holding the flame for what is right and just, and fierce compassion for each other. Fierce compassion so that those who are leading hear not only the voices of those behind them, but are strongly held to account by those who aren’t.

Embracing the future

We practice with fierce compassion. For ourselves, so that we can help meet the challenges that we all face.

We engage as a community with fierce compassion so that we grow as people and stand together and not let fear, rage, hatred and negativity win.

We practice so that we can be of service not just to ourselves and our loved ones but to the wider world and humanity itself.

Let’s do this. Together.

Some recommended reading as a companion to this article, from which I found inspiration:

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