Yoga in the Time of Terrorism
A Call for Peace on the 5th Anniversary of 9/11
While riding the MRT on my way to work today, I saw a little girl staring at me, whispering to her mother, "meiguo ren." I almost forgot that I was a white woman amidst a sea of Taiwanese.
On the street and in the studio, it is very easy to forget that I am so far from home. People are generally so sweet and polite to me that I forget my eyes and hair are a different colour from everyone else's. Here in Taiwan, people wear Yankees caps and shirts (in honour of their beloved Wang) and Converse sneakers. There is a Starbucks on every corner, people laugh at the same Adam Sandler movies . . . You can see why it is easy for me to think I am still in New York. People are so friendly to me that it is also hard for me to believe that elsewhere in the world there are wars and violence due to misunderstanding and intolerance, that there are countries with nuclear capabilities wishing to harm other nations that they see as threats. Besides, I am a yoga teacher, and that informs my every moment.
I will be chanting a Sanskrit peace chant at the end of class and thinking, "What an amazing opportunity this is - to be a white, Jewish-American woman, sharing an ancient philosophy of Indian origin with a group of Taiwanese students." Only Yoga has the power to bring us together in this way. In fact, Yoga is one of the few things in this world that can unite people of all religions and from all walks of life.
On this 5th anniversary of 9/11, I am reminded that the world desperately needs Yoga. Globally, civilian casualties rise exponentially. The calamity that is September 11th did not happen solely in New York City. It repeatedly happens around the world, and it will continue to happen until we find an alternative to the bloodshed. Just ask victims in Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Zimbabwe, India, Britain, Spain - the list goes on and on. Anyone who has been terrorised by attack or who has lost a loved one in a moment of overwhelming violence can tell you that 9/11 is far more than just one day 5 years ago. It is, rather, an ongoing cycle of violence perpetrated on innocent people.
Americans tended to think of cataclysmic, warfare events as incidents that happen elsewhere. Then, 5 years ago our innocence was shattered forever. Yet we do not label ourselves the same title of terrorists that we so easily assign those who do us harm.
We justify our own acts of terror against others by invoking self-righteousness. We don't commit crimes; we perform acts of justice. Our collective ego and our group karma prevent us from seeing the truth, which although may be blatantly obvious to many of us, is as elusive as finding our own happiness.
"What's it got to do with Yoga?" you may ask. Everything! Why do you practise Yoga? As one of my best friends would say with his thick Israeli accent, "We all practise Yoga because we want to be happy." The problem is that we are constantly looking to the wrong things for happiness.
We think if we lose 10 pounds we will be happy, if our muscles are more toned then we will be happy, or if we get that girlfriend or boyfriend then we will be happy. Even countries, with some twisted logic, think that by going to war they will bring about some peace and change.
But it is never enough, is it? We lose 10 pounds and then we want to lose more, we tone our muscles and then we find something wrong with our nose or our breasts. Desires beget more desires, and fighting begets more fighting and animosity. The only way to peace is peace, and the only way to happiness is acceptance of ourselves and of the world around us. That is Yoga.
We are happy when we attain whatever it is that we want; but that is only because our minds are quiet - for a split second. Once another desire arises, we are unhappy again. We fail to realise that we can find this peace anytime of the day; we need nothing but a Yoga mat and little bit of grace.
My Guru, Swami Vishnu-Devananda, the founder of the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres, said that you cannot change the world, but you can change yourself. And by changing yourself, you affect everyone around you in a positive way. He would say that if you want to change a cotton shirt into a silk shirt, you must do it thread by thread. We affect people on an individual basis. And we can only affect others once we have become peaceful ourselves.
By turning our awareness inwards, looking for happiness within, we are in turn encouraging others to do the same. Just by changing yourself, you will help others around you become peaceful too. People will see this deep contentment that you have found, and they will wish to find this for themselves.
You may think that you are helpless to stop the violence occurring around the world. But that is a lie. You do not need to start a peace rally, or write to the United Nations, or send out petitions to all of your friends to bring about change. You can do all that, but your first and most powerful act would be to find your own peaceful nature, which is your True Self.
Maybe we start Yoga for reasons of self-interest. But the reasons for sticking with Yoga will certainly be altruistic. If Yoga were simply an exercise fad, it would have gone the way of Jazzercise a long time ago. I know that I did not come all the way to Taiwan to be a fitness instructor. There is something much deeper in the teachings. The Knowledge is always there for all of us to find, if we are looking for it. I support you in your discovery of Yoga, and I encourage you to share this newfound peace with others.
Loka Samasta Sukhino Bhavantu (May all beings be happy; may the whole world attain peace and harmony)!
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