Things do not grow better; they remain as they are. It is we who grow better, by the changes we make in ourselves.Swami Vivekananda - Hindu monk

What an exciting time for all of us in the yoga world and beyond! There is an evolution happening with the state of yoga in the west, including the explosion of yoga therapy and yoga service. The collective consciousness and perception of yoga in America is changing. People are now realizing more than ever, that yoga is not just a physical exercise, but a legitimate and effective means of healing on multiple levels.

As a Seattle yoga collective, I believe we are committing ever more deeply to sharing and teaching yoga not only as a means to individual health and well-being, but also for healing on a societal and global level. We are embarking on this venture together, joining diverse communities in practice, as well as establishing and defining our own community.

We stand on a precipice, with an opportunity we are not often afforded — the chance to decide what the culture of our community will be, what other cultures it will draw from and why and what we will bring that is new and necessary.

When Swami Vivekananda showed up at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, Illinois, he was an immediate sensation. He came with the intention of bringing Hinduism, yoga and Indian culture to the west. Passionate about an interchange between Indian and American values, he was a champion of taking the best that each country and culture had to offer and freely exchanging ideas and resources to uplift all of humanity. Vivekananda’s dedication to his fellow humans was evident through his many famous statements, including: “All differences in this world are of degree, and not of kind, because oneness is the secret of everything.” and “The moment I have realized God sitting in the temple of every human body, the moment I stand in reverence before every human being and see God in him – that moment I am free from bondage, everything that binds vanishes, and I am free,” as well as his typical reference to man as “the other God.”

Just as Vivekananda loved the United States for its sense of individualism and reliance on self, he was passionate about the never ending sense of devotion that pervaded his own culture; a culture in which the expression atithi devo bhava is a sort of moral and social cornerstone.

Atithi devo bhava “the guest is God” comes from the basic Hindu notion that God is present in all beings, all the time, and therefore is as much an object of love, care and devotion as the idols we pray to in formal ritual. Vivekananda was indeed a pioneer of yoga as a means to social evolution, and I am forever indebted to him for my own heart’s passion. Long before we landed on the The Samarya Center’s mission: “fostering individual change as a means to radical social change,” Vivekananda was admonishing his followers with such calls to action, as “There is no social reform without spiritual reform,” and “They alone live, who live for others.”

When I think about the heart of yoga as a means to social change, I think of a statement I often make when teaching my students the basic premise of teaching yoga and offering yoga therapy. It is this: the yoga that is in yoga therapy is the yoga that is in you, not the yoga that you “teach” to others. I feel the same way about yoga classes in general, and resonate deeply with Vivekananda’s powerful words. “As soon as I think that I am a little body, I want to preserve it, to protect it, to keep it nice, at the expense of other bodies; then you and I become separate,” he said. As an agent of social change, let the yoga be within us, not in what we do or what we teach, but in the very fabric of our being and our soul’s deepest desire to truly serve and uplift others. We must focus first and foremost on our own practice, and above all our practice of devotion to others as manifestations of the divine, however we decide to define this universal creative force that underlies all of creation. This is indeed a culture and value system that we have the opportunity to clearly define as we gather, organize and spread the notion, and culture, of yoga in Seattle.

As I reflect on the meaning of culture, and how it might be purposefully created to elevate its members and the whole of humankind, I began to think about the many cultures I identified with, the ones to which others assigned me and whether I wanted to identify with them or not. I reflected on my own conscious cultivation of my part in each of those cultures, whether influencing them, abiding by them, rejecting them or changing them. My mind did a sort of historical file checking – the culture of speech pathologists, the culture of mid – 90’s Seattle rock bands, the yoga culture, the culture of east coasters, the culture of Irish catholic families from Northern New Jersey, the culture of my town in Mexico, the culture of the other ex-pats and the culture of devotion.

As easily as I thought of these various cultures, I thought of experiences of being taken by surprise by them. I thought of the first time I realized that growing up where I did, when I did, with the family I did, constituted a specific Irish catholic culture. I remember coming home from a yoga training, weeping at the realization that who I had idealized as the culture of “yoga people” was, in fact, just the general public, with a common interest in something called yoga. I recall with a full body feeling, the sense of being at home in the overwhelmingly devotional culture of India, and all the people I met there who asked me to teach them yoga. Or the young man who literally fell at my feet upon seeing a simple puja altar I had constructed in my room.

This question of culture is a fascinating topic, especially as we dedicate ourselves ever more intentionally to the intersecting worlds of yoga, service, outreach and therapy – each with their own unique culture and set of potential questions and pitfalls.

There is the question of yoga itself as a means of service and potential issues of cultural assimilation or appropriation. There are the questions of “outreach” and “service” and accompanying issues of cultural relativism. There is the question of therapy, and the provider’s cultural competency. This new vocabulary already becomes part of the culture being created through this new evolution and sharing of yoga, so let me begin with some basic and very broad definitions:

  • Cultural assimilation refers to the, often painful, process in which an individual or minority group loses its unique characteristics, including language and customs, when absorbed into a dominant culture.
  • Cultural appropriation refers to the apportionment of a culture’s customs, practices and beliefs to another, but without cultural context.
  • Cultural relativism refers to the view that one culture can only judge another based on its own. From the vantage point of cultural relativism, for example, what is considered practical in one society may be considered ridiculous in another.
  • Cultural competency refers to the ability to appreciate and positively relate to people with belief systems and practices that are (sometimes very) different than our own.

These are all issues we must be familiar with and address on some level as we create and define our own culture.

As I think about my own journey through life, yoga, therapy and service, and think about the specific qualities of each of these cultures, and especially those that are most comprehensive and ultimately most meaningful in my life, I always come back to the basic values of yoga. For me, this means quieting the mind and being as aware as I can possibly be of its disturbances and how to manage them. By doing this, I become divinely and eternally connected with my fellow beings.

I believe this is the yoga Swami Vivekananda wanted to share with America. He said at the Chicago parliament: “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance.”

These are the roots of yoga. Should we embark on a purposeful creation of our own culture of yoga, we might use this sentiment as a foundation. It holds a key to addressing each of the culturally sensitive issues above.

When we address cultural competency or cultural relativism, we have to recall that to tolerate or accept something, we must first know as much as we can about it. Ours should be a collective consciousness that is passionately and proactively seeking to learn as much as we can about the people and cultures with whom we get to share our yoga practice, while courageously acknowledging and facing our own biases, projections and fears.

When we think about the idea of cultural assimilation, we might actually celebrate consciously embracing the expression Atithi devo bhava. When we consider appropriation, we can think about the difference between stealing and celebrating a particular aspect of a culture that we choose to emulate. We must be very careful when talking about “yoga for veterans” or “yoga for homeless youth” or “trauma sensitive yoga,” and be sure that we are not changing the sense of yoga as a practice of seeing the divine perfection in all beings.

We have an opportunity to create a culture that is as expansive, devotional and humble as the yoga that swept our nation when the handsome, well-spoken swami came to address the Parliament of Religions in the late 1800s. Let us take this opportunity to really shift the collective consciousness and perception of yoga in Seattle, and beyond!

As our own call to action, let us stand together fearlessly and reclaim the true essence of yoga we share: “God is present in every Jiva; there is no other God besides that. Who serves Jiva serves God indeed.”

[Photo by Sergio Carbajo – CC BY]
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Molly Lannon Kenny

Molly Lannon Kenny is the founder and director of The Samarya Center for Humankind (ness), a 501 c 3 non-profit service and training organization based in Seattle dedicated to individual transformation and radical social change. She has written and taught extensively on the topics of Yoga as Therapy and Yoga as a means to individual and social change, and has taught many hundreds of students in her specialized yoga teacher trainings both locally and internationally.

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