Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Contextualizing Yama and Niyama

Practitioners of yoga talk about the Yamas and Niyamas described in the yoga sutras - roughly translated as the internal and external disciplines, that are expected of an individual in order for him/her to evolve from being a ego centric person to being someone whose sense of identity involves all of creation. Some of them are ahimsa (non-violence), asteya (non-stealing), satya (truth telling), aparigraha (not wanting more than basic needs) and santosa (contentment) (the others are also pretty important but am not taking them right now because they are a little out of context, will come back to them later). Sadly, most people are content with naive interpretations of these important tenets.

Yoga practitioners speak of ahimsa all the time and may even practice it in their daily lives (in terms of their relationships with others including servants, bosses, friends and relations), but, might go ahead and work for a mining corporation which might be actively involved in sponsoring violence on tribals in order to grab hold of their land. If not, one might write software that helps these corporations accomplish their business needs. Even if none of this is true, we might consume so many products relentlessly thereby continuously pouring money into the hands of such corporations. While mining is only one instance of corporate violence, there are so many other means in which violence is unleashed on people by corporation. Does participating in all of this constitute ahimsa?

Asteya (non-stealing) and satya (truth) are great philosophies expounded by all religions and moralists. Patanjali, too, emphasizes on their importance. While, as yoga practitioners, we might be honest in our daily interactions, we might go and work in corporations that make their profits primarily through shady means, euphemistically termed managing the political climate, or might write software that help the stock markets, which no doubt are the ultimate centers of greed, falsehood, non-contentment and violence, to function. Making money through the global economy primarily means exploitation in some corner of the globe. The global economy is necessarily powered by greed and non-contentment (santosa has to necessarily be kicked out of the window before one can join the globalization bandwagon). How can hoping to make profits, careers and lives by participating (or living out of priorly made money through such means) constitute asteya or satya? While any act can be made legal by suitably passing a law through contacts with the high and the mighty, from the perspective of being morally apt, most acts of corporations come a miserable cropper. There certainly might be the occasional squeaky clean corporation (though I doubt it, being the silent beneficiary of some wrong somewhere is usually needed to make it big), they might still be promoting greed as a way of life and have to actively promote a highly environmentally unsustainable way of life so as to make profits for themselves. Would Patanjali approve of the same. I am quite confident that if he were to be alive today, he might be tempted to release Yama and Niyama v2.

Many yoga teachers talk about aparigraha (not wanting more than basic needs) but happily go and teach in rich countries or bring rich foreigners home and teach them thereby earning in a superior currency. Why not teach yoga to people from some impoverished nation like Ghana or Somalia? Why go to New Zealand and Canada and charge in USD? The local poor person does not even understand the amount being quoted. Obviously nothing wrong in teaching people from any particular country (ultimately all these national boundaries are stupid man made conceptions), it is clear that the reason most yoga teachers attract people from rich first world countries is the money. At the very least, is the money being obtained from the well to do channeled to the not so well to do? Sadly, this is mostly not the case. The institute might be functioning successfully in a hut, but the moment they make some money by teaching for money, they go and construct a building thereby getting to the cycle of needing to spend more time teaching for money. Is this aparigraha?

There is a desperately urgent need today to contextualize these high tenets of Yoga and not be satisfied with naive interpretations of them. Do we have the gumption to do so? The right action might vary for each individual but without a sincere acknowledgement of how our choices wreck havoc on other humans and the environment, right action cannot emerge. Can we contextualize our adherence to the limbs of yoga to todays day and age? Or are we going to be content with paying lip service and be comfortably ensconced in our lives and live as Neros guests?

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