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Practising yoga in a changing world

By Scott Johnson

‘Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.’ – Dalai Lama

In the UK at the moment the very fabric of our society is shifting literally hour by hour. Since the Leave vote came through as the democratic winner of the EU referendum on 24th June 2016, our country has been plunged into a crisis that many of us have never known. Our government is rudderless, split between a prime minister who took us to this precipice then subsequently resigned, and a new incoming prime minister who has no plan of where we are going. The opposition party (Labour) is splitting itself in two with major questions and doubts of whether its own leader has the nous to hold the Conservative government to task for their actions.

The EU now wants rid of us as quickly as possible and, chillingly, with each day the division in the country widens. Bigotry, hatred and racism are increasing by the hour all over the UK as the slow realisation of the slogan “Taking Our Country Back” that the Leave campaign adopted sinks in.

Times of uncertainty

I personally have felt incredibly vulnerable over the past few days, not really knowing what to do. It seems so much bigger than me. The whole country is changing right in front of me as I begin to contemplate something myself and no-one I know recognises.

This is a totally new paradigm to me and to many of my friends and family. A feeling of uncertainty and turmoil that seems to encapsulate the whole of the UK. It encompasses the fabric of the country I was born in and changes everything I thought I knew about society and my place in our integrated, connected world. With all this ongoing restlessness and instability I was noticing how perhaps I could get a very tiny sense of what it might be like to have to deal with the ongoing real threat that hangs over the people living in Syria. The war that is making those families want to leave their own country right now, as I write. A comparison it is not, but a very sense of complete unease about where I find myself here in this country it is, and being able to sit with compassion and understanding for those whose lives are truly in jeopardy is sobering.

There have been so many discussions with family and friends over the past few days but one particular communication stood out. I had a message from a colleague – a fellow yoga teacher – over the weekend. They wrote that:

“As yoga teachers we should accept, tolerate and work together at this time. That people should look up to us and we should set an example. That what happened was a democracy and the ability for people to exercise their vote.”

This really got me thinking. Now we find ourselves in this position, what do we need to do? And what does it mean to practice yoga in a time of such turbulence? How is my practice helping me see the world as it changes, one that is turning into something that I don’t recognise from only just last week? Is this how it is now going to be? Is this the new normal? If so, how do I now meet it? How do I act…?

As a response to the Paris attacks in November 2016, the Dalai Lama was quoted as saying:

“We cannot solve this problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place. We need a systematic approach to foster humanistic values, of oneness and harmony. If we start doing it now, there is hope that this century will be different from the previous one. It is in everybody’s interest. So let us work for peace within our families and society, and not expect help from God, Buddha or the governments.”

The Dalai Lama’s statement, I believe, is not about accepting, remaining tolerant or hoping that the current state of events that are unfolding will go away. This is about creating a human solution, or if not a solution then a way of being together as a community as we shift through this momentous time. The division in our society has come out into the open, we are beginning to see it. When we can see it, we can begin to work with it. Which means we can begin to work with each other.

Do you have a practice?

If so, how is your practice helping you at this time? If anything, I believe we need a personal practice so much at the moment. Whether it is yoga, meditation or some other embodied practice, it helps to ground us and be more awake to all the changes as they unfold in our lives. There is so much information/opinion coming our way at the moment and families and communities are split over this massive decision. I feel now, more than ever, that individually we need to cultivate the ability to pause and respond to situations rather than react. To be able to be open to each other.

This referendum decision has brought into light what was perhaps dark in our country. How can we now confront this? Perhaps when we practice we are not just practising for our own transformation. Perhaps we are practising so we can hope to change and perceive a different world. One where we can begin to work with our own discrimination and look to soften and let that go.

In the Bhagavad Gita (2/50) Krishna tells Arjuna that skill in action is Yoga. I think what Krishna is alluding to is that he means that your life is always action, that action is an inevitable part of human nature. If we accept we act, if we hate we act, if we love we act, if we do nothing we act… What we need to develop is the skill to be able to move through our lives with action that benefits the greater good, especially now. Skill begins with understanding how you are viewing the world, right now, and being with it so that you begin to recognise and shift patterns that don’t serve you.

Why I voted Remain

Personally, at the moment I am struggling to accept the outcome of this referendum. I voted Remain because I saw that working together as a continent was inclusive, that we could work collectively for the greater good and ultimately peace. My own 82-year-old father is devastated at this decision. Growing up through and after the second world war he saw why the EU was formed: to create peace in Europe. I know that the EU isn’t at all perfect but working within it could change it in the long term so that all could benefit and peace could continue…

Both sides of the referendum campaign were less than perfect in their rhetoric, but the Leave campaign, I felt, was bordering on hatred. Because of this we now find ourselves in a wilderness, with people sniping at each other and hostility growing. When you have far right parties like the French National Front, English Defence League and Britain First lauding your win, I believe something has gone drastically wrong. Plus, can the incredibly negative spin of both the Remain and Leave campaigns, and the media, now be a narrative on how not to lead people into decision making? This may take time to realise, but it must be pointed to and learned from…

Now, after the referendum, this is where we find ourselves.

As I look at the changing landscape that is playing out in this country, I have started to get the inkling of,

“Okay, if not this, what then is possible? What is possible if we are more open with each other?” 

It’s only an inkling, but it’s there. Now at SYL I encourage our community to be open to all people and to all views so that we can meet with each other in an open and honest way. To come together in the spirit of kindness, irrespective of our personal views.

Practising compassion

So at this time, it seems to me that in order to counteract the chaos and helplessness that some of us are feeling, it would help to be compassionate to each other, to listen to each other, to be open to one another. To want the world to be more beautiful, more vibrant than ever before. To have a personal practice to return to, because by practising it helps me engage with acting to make the world this more beautiful place I know it can be, and therefore not turning away from the challenge ahead. Because to turn away is to hide, to accept, to allow negativity to rise. This life is still incredibly beautiful, mysterious and wondrous and in the middle of it all I am a vulnerable, radiant, human being.

And perhaps too, allowing ourselves to be incredibly tender at this time, but always remembering to return to the ebb and flow of the breath. All our choices, all our actions, how we then move in the world, will stem from that place…

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