“Yoga mats have become little island sanctuaries of peace. The time for that is over. We are now called to truly build community, to pool our talents, to share our heartaches and triumphs, and to use this energy in service of compassion and justice.”
If a person reaches enlightenment with no one to serve, even if it really happened, does it matter?
This is a question I found myself asking a few years ago, after years of dedicated yoga practice. I had come to yoga as a broken being, completely lost, in deep pain and in need of immense healing. Yoga very literally saved my life. I valued very much, and still do, how it taught me to find peace amidst what felt like a crazy world by returning to my center, my true Self. At some point, though, I became disenchanted with the way it is consumed in our culture, and reacting to the chaos of the world by turning inward no longer felt right.
I am not the only yogi to lament the commodification of spirituality or the commercialization of yoga. I am not the first to note that, as it is widely practiced in our society, the focus is on the wellbeing and happiness of the individual while little thought is given to how much of this effort should result in radical social change. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the examples of individual yogis and organizations that are encouraging the personal transformation that can happen on the yoga mat to translate to societal transformation out in the world. (Off the Mat Into the World and their Global Seva Challenge is a good example of this.)
As I found myself being called to more and seeking a new framework within which I could identify and live my calling I became aware of what is sometimes called “new monasticism.” (An articulation of this movement can be found in this New Monasticism Manifesto and in my feminist perspective on what this movement means.) It is a movement that says that the place for people with a committed spiritual practice is not a monastery or a convent or a cave in India. Nor is it a yoga mat. The place for folks who are committed to personal transformation and spiritual growth is out in the world, fully and deeply engaged, seeking not just personal transformation and enlightenment but real social change.
Seva is a Sanskrit word that means selfless service and it is an integral part of any authentic yoga practice. It is service without any expectation of acknowledgment or reward and the intersection of Yoga and new monasticism can be pinpointed at this shared commitment to service. But while yogic philosophy ends at realization of the Self, new monasticism calls this Self to embrace Life with all of its joys and sorrows, seeking connection to all others through an actively engaged life in service of humanity. Nothing less will transform and heal our world.
If we look at the monastic and contemplative framework that has existed for centuries we see, similar to yoga, one that tends towards connecting to the Divine through a very internal process. Additionally, the traditional vows have excluded large portions of life including sex, romantic love, and children. One of the greatest challenges, then, is embodiment. How can we be embodied if we are denying and distancing ourselves from our humanness? How can we be of service to the world and humanity if our lived experience shares little commonality with the average person?
Yoga, on the other hand, provides a very clear path to embodiment, which is not to say that all yoga practitioners are embodied or that all yoga practices are embodiment practices. On the contrary, I’ve observed that often the physical part of Yoga is used, not as a tool for embodiment, but a tool of subjugation, well-hidden in a cloak of spiritual practice. Popular yoga culture tends to marginalize men on the one hand and reproduce the structures of oppression for women on the other. As women’s bodies experience the symptoms of patriarchy they are encouraged, not to radically inhabit their bodies, but to bend, control, and contort them further. The very upsetting thing about this is how insidious it is, camouflaged in fluffy new-age messages of empowerment.
The new monastic movement does not ask us to connect with the Divine through isolation or abnegation, but rather through relationship, connection, and full participation in Life. It asks us to get our hands dirty, to be elbow-deep in the challenges and joys of a fully integrated existence. As I look at these two frameworks -Yoga with it’s integrative practices and new monasticism with it’s non-duality – I see an opportunity to take from both and make clear a path for the yogic contemplative who desires to find connection with the Divine through connection with humanity, to be an embodied presence in the world, using any and all wisdom they’ve gained from their spiritual practice in service of compassion and justice.
In the sacred yoga texts, Patanjali says that asana, the physical part of yoga, meant to prepare the body for long hours of sitting in meditation, is steadiness and comfort. When teaching I have alternately used the phrase “peaceful strength”. Engagement without rigidity is another way of expressing it. As we move through our practice, we deeply engage our muscles while also remaining fluid and open. For yogis, preparing the body in this way also prepares the mind and spirit for the work of self-realization.
What if self-realization, though, was not the end, but only the beginning? What if we carried this steadiness and comfort, this peaceful strength, beyond our own internal process and allowed it to inform our actions out in the world? What if this steadiness and comfort gave us the faith and courage we need to serve others and to live a heart-led life?
The beauty of yoga is that it teaches us to listen to our bodies and to quiet our minds long enough to really hear our hearts. William Stringfellow said, “Being holy… does not mean being perfect but being whole…it does not mean being godly, but rather being truly human.” Yoga helps us to connect to our humanity in a very real way; a way that we can touch and feel. When we embrace this humanity and become “truly human” we touch the Divine. And from this place of deep and utter humanness, we are empowered to touch the humanity in others, to allow our hearts to break over their suffering that then also becomes our suffering. When we truly know what breaks our hearts, we are given a clear path for where to direct our talents and energies.
The importance of community in this endeavor cannot be overstated. Yoga mats have become little island sanctuaries of peace. I very happily resided on mine for some time, taking breaks to chat with my fellow yogis about our mutual interests, but always returning to my own space of inner peace. The time for that is over. We are now called to truly build community, to pool our talents, to share our heartaches and triumphs, and to use this energy in service of compassion and justice. We need to deeply engage our hearts, absent rigidity, and move in to the world as Love embodied.
So, where is your heartache leading you and are you prepared to follow?
Top Photo Credit: Quinn Martin (Shutterstock)
V.K. Harber is a yogi, contemplative, and writer exploring the intersection of yoga, new monasticism, feminism, and social change. She is a co-founder and former managing director of Samdhana-Karana Yoga, a nonprofit healing arts center, and has over 1,000 hours of teaching experience focused on underserved populations for whom yoga is not readily accessible. She is currently the spiritual director for Hab Washington, an ecumenical and inter-spiritual “new monastic” fellowship established in NYC by Adam Bucko, which offers formation in radical spirituality and sacred activism. V.K. is also the producer for Adam’s radio show, Radical Spirituality and Sacred Activism, on Unity Online Radio. Her website is www.vkharber.com