Can yoga make the world a better place? Yes - if you came for the simple answer, thanks for reading, but if you want an explanation, I'd love for you to stay!
As a yoga teacher, I always hear people mention that they can’t do yoga because they ‘cannot touch their toes’. Is that what yoga is? Being flexible, or having a good stretch on a mat? The westernization of yoga may believe this, but it can be used, not only for my body but for my life and even the world.
Yoga shouldn’t primarily be about physical stretching. In Ashtanga yoga there are 8 sutras, or sections, and the physical part we most associate with yoga is only section 3. If we are practicing only one of those sections, we could miss those other 7 important sections to the practice as a whole. These sutras are compared to a tree that has 8 limbs. Once one decides to climb the tree of yoga, they can be brought higher physically and mentally with each branch.
Yoga is a study of the mind, but how can the study of the mind help the world to be a better place? Let's go through a quick rundown of what yoga teaches in those branches that, in turn, can help better the world.
The first limb on our yoga tree is called yama, or the study of our relationship with the outside world. It focuses on the do’s and don'ts of human life, including: being truthful, non-violent, and non-stealing. Knowing that our life isn't just our own, but a collection of all other persons we come in contact with, helps to show us how to navigate our relationship with the world. That golden rule stands clear - do unto others as you would have them do unto you. How do we treat others? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all gave respectability to everyone and everything regardless of age, gender, race, or religion? Realizing that the world isn’t about us, helps to cultivate a life without greed and selfishness and turns it into a life of service and love.
The second limb, or sutra, is the Niyamas, which refers to our relationship with ourselves. Wait, didn’t you say the world isn’t about us? Yes I did, but the Niyamas is a self-study, a nurturing for our bodies, both inside and out, for our mental health, and how we process information as individuals. We are always learning from our experiences and the Niyamas can help guide us. How do they guide us? By encouraging one to stay clean, content with life, and disciplined. When we focus on ourselves, we discover how we process events, or emotions. Our past experiences build who we are and if we haven’t processed those life experiences in a healthy way, it can be damaging to our emotional or mental well being. Therapy is a good way to process and understand ourselves if you feel like you are struggling.
There are many scientific studies on the benefits of self care. It seems to be what has been missing in society as a whole, fix yourself, so you can help the world. The airplane industry has been teaching this for years. “Put your oxygen mask on first, before helping others.” How can we be expected to help others if we need help ourselves? This can be used in both physical and mental settings. Remember, our physical and mental states are closely related. They can affect each other. Once we feel good in our physical bodies, we are less prone to fall into depression or other mental ailments. The same is true of our mental state, a healthy mind helps our physical bodies feel better and heal.
When climbing the tree of yoga, most people, me included, jump right to the 3rd branch that deals with stretching, but their feet may hang and are not supported from those bottom branches. If they use the first two limbs, a better support system helps balance them. Basically, we can take care of our bodies, but knowing WHY we should take care of them makes the practice more than an in-studio or on-the-mat practice. It allows yoga to follow you once you leave the mat. We take care of ourselves, so we can take care of others.
Yoga also teaches mindfulness, limb’s 5-7. I grew up thinking mindfulness was having a blank mind. It's not about a blank mind so much as having a controlled mind; having authority over your thoughts. It is to not let the fear of anxiety, or the regrets of the past, permeate the mind and over stimulate your emotional capacity. ‘Yoga is the restraint of the modifications of the mind.’ (Yoga Sutra 1.2 - Chitta vrtti nirodhah) meaning we have control over our body, actions, and mind. There is the possibility to learn that if you can find peace in a difficult yoga pose, you can find peace in a hard life situation. We can practice mindfulness through meditation. It's as simple as that. Even 5 minutes of deep breathing without letting your mind wander has great benefits of control. A yoga class has those moments of meditation during and after with shavasana. Remember that it is a practice, it takes time and repetition to control the mind. Even when you think you have it figured out, bam! A thought of your ex pops into your mind and ruins the practice. Don't fret, we are all children learning, and hopefully you’ve learned to not turn back to that ex.
Lastly, Yoga is a spiritual practice, the last limb of yoga. Everyone needs spirituality. Spirituality isn’t about believing in a God, it’s about believing there is something bigger than ourselves. Surrendering to the divine, the universe, and yourself. It's the idea of a journey of discovery and learning who you want to be. The ability to understand others and keep an open mind helps develop a world of peace and understanding. Spirituality connects us to others and helps us find our place in this world.
Yoga is more than just practicing on the mat, in fact the true practice of yoga begins once you step off the mat. Yoga is how you act in the world and how you act in your heart. What do your actions say about you? Do you practice ‘leave no trace’, or do you clean up litter? The world is better because of you. Do you take care of yourself in order to be a better person? The world is better because of you. Do you buy clothes and food from companies that promote sustainability and are responsibly sourced? The world is better because of you. Yoga teaches us how to be better people so that the world will be a better place, not just for us now, but for everyone in the future.
-Mel Robe, E-RYT 200, RYT 500