Is Yoga Unity?: A Practice of Sitting with Discomfort and Tension

Image Credit to Michael Meade Mosaic Voices

Yoga is often defined as “union” from the Sanskrit word “yuj”to “join” or “yoke”. The analogy often used is the yoking of the ox to a cart. Joining mind and body in concentration, which can lead to liberation. And to be clear, when I say Yoga, I mean the whole 8 limbed path of Yoga, of which the physical practice (known as asana) is just part.

The word “Union” conjures up a sense of tranquility and peace. Sitting with the “ox and cart” analogy, the realization came to me that the purpose of the ox and the cart being joined together is the expectation of movement, a journey. In the harness that connects the ox to the cart, there is a necessary tension. The tension is what allows the ox to pull and the cart to be pulled.

So in the “praxis” of yoga (praxis being the applied theory and my new favorite word), another lens through which to view the practice of Yoga is “Yoga as tension”.

This theory bring to mind the tale of a lute player who comes to the Buddha to discuss his meditation practice. From, the story goes,

“What happens when you tune your instrument too tightly? the Buddha asked.

“The strings break,” the musician replied.

“And what happens when you string it too loosely?”

“When it’s too loose, no sound comes out,” the musician answered. “The string that produces a tuneful sound is not too tight and not too loose.”

“That,” said the Buddha, “is how to practice: not too tight and not too loose.”

In other words, practicing “right tension” can lead to that state of liberation. Calibrating that tension is the work, and it ain’t easy. For a moment, we may find stillness in the mind. In the next moment, a shift occurs and the stillness is lost. The string becomes too loose, the string becomes too tight.

This is just one way to view and practice yoga- a struggle, a dance, a constant movement, in service of a grander and truer sense of peace.

One way this tension plays out is in the suffering that comes from witnessing the pain in the world and the understandable desire to escape the suffering. The impulse becomes stronger when you see your role in creating suffering. This became clear to me as we witness the worldwide movement for Black Lives, which is working towards ending white supremacy, and ultimately liberation for all. White supremacy ultimately hurts us all because it creates separation. This does not take away from the lived reality that white supremacy devalues Black bodies and makes the white body the ideal. And as a white passing Latinx woman, I have benefited from this system.

Imani Perry, Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, compares whiteness to foot binding in an On Being interview,

I think that it (whiteness) is a constriction. It cuts off the blood supply. It disciplines, or it threatens to discipline, white people out of deep identification with other human beings, which I think is the natural state of things.

Before this moment, I would feel anger whenever another story of police brutality towards unarmed Black person would make the news. But life would get busy, and soon I was just going back to my daily life. Even as the shock value would wear off, I was still making a concerted effort to consume more Black media, movies, and to learn more about white supremacy.

The relative stillness of our collective lives due to the coronavirus gave me the capacity to fully be with the newest outcry of suffering that resulted from the lynching of George Floyd (along with so many others at that time and since- Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and too many more).

The fact that it look this long and this particularly heart-breaking circumstance to break out of my complacency is a form of white privilege that I am not proud of. To get to decide to face the reality of being Black in America is a privilege. Black people have had to fully understand the nuances of white culture; to do otherwise is to risk losing their job or their life.

Seeing and understanding my complicity is suffering. It’s literally a shame. It hurts, and it is uncomfortable. But when I recognize and sit with the suffering that Black folk endure currently and generationally, my suffering becomes contextualized within the larger systemic suffering.

Both my privilege and my suffering are tied to the suffering of Black Lives. Both my privilege and my suffering are also tied to liberation of Black Lives. The liberation of Black Lives Lives is the liberation of our collective humanity.

In sitting with my deep discomfort of my privilege and the harm it has caused and causes every day, I can become more resilient in the face of discomfort.

My suffering at seeing my own complicity can be transformed into a fire that gives me courage to take responsibility, and by taking action. Action for me is taking several forms- learning more, educating and calling in white friends publicly and privately, elevating Black voices, making phone calls to demand justice in cases of police brutality, offering my organizing skills to young Black leadership in our community, and supporting Black-owned businesses. And I need and want to do more. Can you sit with the suffering in the world, your role in it so you can be transformed into an agent of change?

I am inviting you to experience true Yoga. To be able to hold tension, to sit with discomfort, to be less concerned with being seen as a “good person” , to be OK with getting it wrong, with hearing opposing viewpoints as to whether you are getting it right or wrong, with having uncomfortable awkward conversations.

Love yourself, love your friends, enough to do this. Play a part in reducing the suffering of the world. Your personal suffering, and the suffering in the world, which are one in the same.

Do the hard, sweaty, mortifying work of bringing true unity into being. You don’t have to do it perfectly, you just need to start.

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