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"If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when? - Rabbi Hillel
Taking action to help others is yoga too by Stacie Dooreck, Author of SunLight Chair Yoga: yoga for everyone! Direct action to help others is yoga. Eating a diet that does not harm animals or any living being is yoga. Sitting in stillness is yoga. Yoga postures are also yoga, but not the entirety of the practice by any means. It seems however, that the modern wave of yoga often focuses mostly on yoga postures, which is very different from the yoga taught as I learned it, in the ashrams in India or ashrams established in the west from the lineage based Gurus.
The yoga path had postures (asanas) as part of hatha yoga but also included a vegetarian diet, daily meditation, devotional chanting, pranayama (breathing exercises) and karma yoga (service). Although yoga postures are useful for improving health and peace of mind, the yoga asanas are only one part of yoga. It often serves as an entry way where many people are drawn to the practice (to achieve greater strength, flexibility, exercise, pain relief, etc.) They are also useful and helpful in lifestyle, as daily exercise for the body and a meditation for the mind. However the other aspects of yoga practiced in conjuction with the yoga postures, create the holistic path of yoga.
Although the postures themselves can lead the mind into a meditative state and regulate the breathing, if we are harming animals and not helping humanity, we may be missing a large part of the practice: to increase compassion for ourselves and others. A simple way to think of it is that yoga can be summarized as a full lifestyle including 5 main points. "Swami Vishnudevananda condensed the essence of the yoga teachings into five principles for physical and mental health as well as spiritual growth"
Proper Exercises - asana
Proper Breathing - relaxation
Proper Relaxation - savasana
Proper Diet - vegetarian
Positive Thinking and Meditation
"Serve. Love. Give. Purify. Meditate. Realize." says Swami Vishnu Devananda. Karma yoga or seva is selflessly serving humanity, not included in this five main points, but is another branch of yoga. It doesn't involve a headstand, handstand, downward dog or spinal twist. It does not even involve sitting in meditation and feeling serene nor eating a vegetarian diet. This can be volunteer work, organizing projects to help those in need or any way that you can give of your talents, time or energy to help others. Although it is useful to keep the body healthy and strong with yoga postures, this is only a small part of the path and practice of yoga. In fact, the postures, some say, were originally designed as part of the yoga practice so that the yogis can then sit quietly and concentrate, do pranayama (breathing exercises) and meditate on higher aspects of yoga and spirituality, and perhaps to answer questions with clarity such as "Who am I? Why am I here? And how can I serve humanity?" Since the body is limited to the amount of years we are here, the yogis were also seeking to understand their true essence, that which is beyond the body, time and space.
If we are injured, paralyzed in a wheelchair, recovering from a surgery, in a hospital bed or not able to move our body in yoga postures, we still can practice yoga. Meditation, breathing exercises, eating a diet that does not harm animals and giving back to humanity is another way. Our yoga practice will to have to adapt to our needs and abilities in each phase of life, but it is all still yoga. "Adapt. Adjust. Accommodate." says Swami Sivananda.
The reason I was led to write this article is because when the earthquake happened in Nepal, in the Himalayas [April 30th 2105], the motherland of yoga, I saw most yoga businesses posting news online about their workshops and clothes on sale, yoga conferences and their festival and events, yet no mention on social media from many of these large commercial yoga studios and yoga businesses about helping those in Nepal needing food, water, medical supplies and urgent help. Direct action to help humanity IS yoga. If the yoga communities unite, as yoga aims to do, and each yoga studio, yoga business and yoga teacher asks on social media to have their followers or friends donate to an organization they trust, even a small amount, this would be of great service. It would be true yoga if helping humanity, was the priority. Let's follow the lead of Yoga International Magazine that sent a dedicated e-letter immediately asking for donations for Nepal earthquake relief. If you are a yoga teacher or yoga studio owner, you can also arrange a local event in your area as a fundraiser for Nepal or another group that is in need.
Any effort, even small can create a ripple effect and bring more peace and less suffering in this world. Don't wait for another person to step in help. As Rabbi Hillel said “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?"
www.sivananda.org Photo in this article is of the Annapurna Mountain peak in the Himalayas in Nepal. I took that at sunrise a few years ago on my trek there.