I have been asked to lead an interactive workshop at the Wadsworth Atheneum art musem’s tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. These are thoughts I wrote in reflection on the topic:
“So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? “.
– Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963
What is yoga? What is a yogi? Who was Dr. King?
The answers to all three of these questions are more linked than one may think.
In the Sanskrit language, the literal meaning of yoga is something like “to yoke” or “to join” or “to unite”. While most westerners either imagine a thin, Hindu ascetic sitting cross legged atop a mountain or a well-heeled woman on a rubber mat in expensive designer yoga pants, the meaning of yoga has a much broader scope. Regarded as the most important yoga text, Pantanjali’s Sutras were written sometime between 2 B.C. or the second or third century. The text includes a philosophy or a set of eight “limbs” to live by. Found among and within these eight limbs of yoga are yamas and niyamas, or abstentians and observances. As an aside, the limb of asana or physical yoga poses were originally a part of yoga to help strengthen the body and posture to sit for longer periods of time in meditation. The real goal was to dive into these philosophical quests.
A person who lives their life seeking to follow this yoga philosophy is known as a yogi. For myself, a Modern Yogi is someone who lives their yoga on and off the mat. The physical practice of downward facing dogs and the like is what has become the focus in America. However, the mind-body connection and most importantly the connection between the body and our ability to control our breathing are also important modern limbs. In fact, Pantanjali devoted an entire one of his eight limbs to the control of breath and it’s benefits for the mind and body. The practice of yoga breathing is known as pranyama. Finally as a Modern Yogi, the yamas and niyamas are simply guides to living fully, kindly, with gratitude and with service to fellow human beings and our earth.
Which brings us to Dr. King. The first of the yamas is ahimsa, or simply put non-violence. Specifically this includes inflicting no injury or harm to others and also to no harm one’s self. You can think of it as non-violence physically but also non-violence in thoughts and words. As we all know, words can hurt, and ideas can too. If you ask anyone about Dr. Martin Luther King’s beliefs, his strong belief in non-violence is likely one of the first things they would mention. In fact, Dr. King was largely inspired by the idea of non-violence by Indian social justice leader Mahatma Gandhi. India used non-violent civil disobedience as a method to seek independence from colonial British rule.
Dr. King and his allies were activists against the unequal treatment of African-Americans in this country in ways that included quite a bit of violence. From physical intimidation during the Civil Rights struggles of the 20th century as far back as the violence that was a part of slavery, violence was on the table. However, Dr. King’s monumental idea to embrace non-violence may have been the reason his movement was so powerful. In the face of such unequal treatment, standing firm with one’s own humanity and doing the right thing is something that I am sure made the world take notice.
I think that in today’s world, the idea of ahimsa or non-violence includes concerns like bullying, cyber-bullying body image and self-esteem issues. We need to work on loving each other, and we need to work on loving ourselves. It’s the right thing to do.
What can you do to eliminate some of the negativity from your life and embrace Dr. King’s idea of non-violence? In honor of Dr. King, try to do something to love yourself and to love the others in our world to make it a more peaceful and a more beautiful place. Be kind. Be a yogi.