Thanks to the spread of news and social media, we are continually aware of the presence of injustice in the world, of deep divides between groups of people, and of the way these divides and injustices sometimes play out as violence and suffering. How can we best help? What does yoga offer us when the weight of the world seems overwhelming?
It is easier than ever in our modern world to feel like it is all just too much. With the touch of a finger, we are suddenly transported to distant lands and hearts, and we hear of suffering all over the world. Our first instinct is to help. But how can we make choices about who and how to help? What happens when we hear of grief that touches very close to our lives? How can we stay present, and helpful, without becoming paralyzed by emotion and indecision, or even just the staggering depth of suffering present in the world?
In the Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the most famous and beloved section in India’s national epic, the Mahabharata, even the great warrior Arjuna comes to a place of feeling paralyzed, and unable to act. He pauses in the middle of an epic battle, and time is suspended. He lowers his weapons and is overcome with grief, not knowing whether the better choice is to continue to fight, or to lay down his weapons. Arjuna asks for guidance, and it is his conversation with Krishna that reveals to us how yoga can inform our actions, and how it offers us peace.
As Krishna says to Arjuna, “You have a right to your actions, but never to your actions’ fruits. Act for the action’s sake. And do not be attached to inaction” (2.47) For many of us, reading this is unsettling. We want to do exactly the right thing—the idea of the fruits of our actions being anything other than what we intend can be very uncomfortable. It is tempting and perhaps common to choose inaction as a path of least resistance. We can convince ourselves that we will make mistakes if we act, and so instead we decide to remain neutral, or completely inert. However, Krishna tells Arjuna that inaction is impossible to maintain. Our existence as sentient beings is inextricably linked to action. “No one” Krishna says, “not even for an instant, can exist without acting; all beings are compelled [to act]” (3.5) Since we must, by our very nature, choose some action, how can we choose wisely? How can we be effective and truly contribute to peace in the world?
It may seem paradoxical to turn our attention inwards first, when there is so much to attend to around us. Yet we can be wiser in our actions if we are acting from a place of clarity. In the Bhagavad Gita, we read that yoga is “skill in action” (2.50). In order to act with this skill, we must cultivate a mental state of balance and calm. It is from this place that we can make choices about our actions that are unhindered by habitual patterns, attachments, and aversions.
Our actions can then be formed with clarity of thought and with deep consideration.
Cultivating a mental state that is free from attachments and aversions is part of the practice of yoga—and it is through the practice of yoga that we can become the person of yoga, the “wise man” so often referenced in the Bhagavad Gita. (3.26) Our action in the face of feeling overwhelmed by the world might then be to simply return to our breath. We may choose to meditate, to practice asana, to nourish our bodies mindfully with food and rest. We can study ourselves to understand our fluctuating mental states with the hope of overcoming them. Our aim behind these practices is to create peace in our minds so that we are not overwhelmed by witnessing suffering, and so that we may initiate action that comes from our clarity rather than our panic. These practices might be the skilled actions needed to create the crucial changes we need for peace in our world. We must align our efforts in our yoga practice with these goals, without certainty that they are attainable—we cannot know the full picture of how we might affect the world. As Krishna says to Arjuna, “The wise man does not unsettle the minds of the ignorant; quietly acting in the spirit of yoga, he inspires them to do the same” (3.26)
Clarissa Pinkola-Estes echoes the words of the Bhagavad Gita in her 2008 essay You Were Made for This, “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.”
In the face of unknowing, directing our actions with wise consideration, from an equanimous place, is perhaps our best chance at easing suffering in the world. If we can inspire the same in others, our wise actions combined can be undertaken with the goal of peace—perhaps this can someday be the shift that tips the balance. To reach this equanimous place from which we can act with clarity, we practice yoga.
About the Author
Alysia is a certified as a 200-hour yoga teacher through the Red Door Yoga School on Vancouver Island. She completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in Liberal Studies at Vancouver Island University. Alysia lives with her husband and two children in a little house with a growing garden. She likes knitting, ginger, coffee, and cooking slowly.