The Yoga of Action

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by J.C. Peters

It’s been a tough week.

I found out about bullying, manipulation, and sexual assault happening in my yoga community. As a community member and a studio owner, I had to do something. I had some choices to make: Should I break the silence and with it the illusion of safety at my yoga studio? Remove the person in question at the expense of their yoga practice and my reputation as a peace-loving, all-accepting yogi? Or do I stay quiet, let the person keep coming to class and risk the safety of another one of my students?

Usually when I’m upset, I head to my mat, breathe for a while, forget about my problems, and feel all better. This week, though, the yogic admonition to relax and “go with the flow” felt like a hollow cliche, and the quiet breathing and contemplation of my yoga practice made me want to throw myself out the window.

I view yoga as a tool for navigating the confusing world off the mat, and I believe there are times when we need to get off our asanas and do something. “Go with the flow” sounded a little too much like “let sleeping dogs lie,” another cliché that is sometimes really bad advice. Sometimes sleeping dogs need to be woken up.

I wanted an airhorn.

I didn’t get an airhorn. Instead, I found myself immersed in Yoga Sutra 2:1.

Tapas svadhyaya ishvarapranidhana kriya yogah

There are many translations, including this one from Judith Hanson Lasater [http ://www.judithlasater.com/writings/tensutras.html]:

Self-discipline, self-study and devotion are yoga in the form of action.

Sometimes I get the feeling we go to yoga to forget, to trust that everything is going to be OK and melt into quiet meditation. Hearing the words “yoga in the form of action” hit me right in the gut, where I longed for the courage to break the silence. I wanted to know more: what does a yoga of action look like? And is there an airhorn in here anywhere?

Breaking down the sutra, we learn that Kriya Yoga, the yoga of action, has three elements. Each one is valuable on its own, but together their potential for instigating real change is incredibly powerful.

The first element is tapas, which, according to Lasater, translates as "to burn," and in a larger sense, austerity or discipline. Other translations include “consistency,” “suffering passion,” “purification by fire,” and even “burning zeal.”

Burning zeal I had. Now this was the airhorn I was looking for!

Paired with svadhyaya, or “self-study,” however, this fire is tempered. As much as I wanted to punch something, any next action I made had to come from a place of self-awareness.

Gently breathing and slowing my mind always gives me insight into my inner workings that I can't always see from the surface view. Svadyaya is exactly the kind of quiet contemplation I was resisting. Patience and stillness could reveal how to take action.

That seemed pretty good to me: airhorn acquired, use it carefully. The third element in the sutra, however, gives us ishvara pranidhana: “surrender to God." That phrase snuck back up into my mind like a bad joke. It was “go with the flow” all over again.

It's a paradox: Tapas indicates burning zeal, while ishvara pranidhana indicates surrender. The Yoga of Action involves passion, self-reflection, and then letting go.

What a confusing piece of advice.

Fortunately, Lasater’s definition of ishvara pranidhana clicked into just the right place in my mind:

The surrender of all the fruits of practice to one’s chosen deity.

We must show up, the sutra seems to say, and take mindful action. Then we must let go of our expectations of what’s supposed to happen next. In other words, I can airhorn those sleeping dogs as much as I want, but whether they wake up—or what they do when roused—isn’t my decision.

I realized that yoga was never about relaxing into the status quo. It is potentially revolutionary because it connects us to our own self-knowledge, and gives us the courage to make real, sometimes uncomfortable choices. I know in my heart and my gut that the safety of my community is more important than my reputation or that of my studio. I know that if I open my mouth, other people will open theirs, and we can at least get some conversation going. With mindful intentions, self-study, and courageous action, I’ll have no problem going with the flow.

And it shall be the flow of a well-blown airhorn.

Julie (JC) Peters is a writer, spoken word poet, and E-RYT yoga teacher in Vancouver, Canada, who loves to affectionately mash these things together in her writing-and-yoga workshops Creative Flow. Learn more about her on her website, or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.