Yoga Service as Social Justice
Yoga is an ontological system that was devised about 4,000 years ago in India. It was originally created to help privileged young men, of the highest caste, achieve a full and meaningful life. From the outset, it was a practice which excluded most people. Women were not allowed to study yoga, nor was any man not born into the Brahmin caste. It was originally intended for the 1%.
This holistic practice utilized physical postures (asanas) to help increase strength and flexibility which enabled a student to sit in meditation for long periods of time. Breathing techniques and chanting were also taught to help focus restless minds. Concepts like moderation, patience, truthfulness, service and honesty were taught using aphorisms called the yamas and niyamas.
Fast forward 4,000 years. The physiological benefits of yoga practice are well known and scientifically proven after decades of research using fMRI technology as well as pulse rate, blood pressure and oxygenation and other medical measures. For instance, when faced with a difficult challenge, your heart will pound and your breath will become shallow. If you practice yoga, you can self-regulate during a stressful situation, using some of the tools learned on your mat. Deep breathing, focusing your mind and staying in the present moment all help with stress management. The medical term for this is heart rate variability. When you are faced with a dangerous or difficult situation, and you are emotionally regulated through a regular yoga practice, you can reflect rationally upon your choices instead of having your mind go blank. The U.S. Air Force currently uses yoga and meditation to train young recruits to “zero their minds”. The skills they learn through yoga practice enable them to remain calm and choose their course wisely when faced with life and death situations.
Even with all of the research and data to prove how safe and beneficial it is, even though the medical establishment recommends it for heart health and everyone from public schools to nursing homes are jumping on the band wagon, yoga is simply not accessible to many people. The cultural, economic and social obstacles that keep people from learning these skills today are very real barriers.
Sea Change Yoga serves people living with enormous challenges, including chronic homelessness, incarceration and substance use disorder. We teach women who have survived domestic violence and asylum seekers who have escaped torture at the hands of their governments. Our students have suffered devastating trauma. They are the people who need to learn healthy tools to help them regulate their nervous systems the most, and yet they are the least likely people to have the opportunity to access these tools.
We teach techniques to help our students cope with the stress and trauma that they live with every day. And we are changing lives. One person, one breath, one yoga class at a time. We delivered over 10,000 hours of yoga service last year. This is what yoga as social justice looks like to me.