The other day, I was overcome with a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, sadness, and hopelessness thinking about the challenges I face and we collectively face in these times. The destruction of nature, which which we are inextricably interwoven, in service of a capitalism turned instrument of exploitation and oppression. The erosion of our democratic institutions and values. The utter devaluing of the feminine and of deep, instinctual ways of knowing and being. And now, a global pandemic threatening to decimate the most vulnerable among us.
I was – like many people- also feeling a sense of isolation that compounded these emotions. Before social distancing, I had practiced and taught at a yoga school that had become my second home, and I felt the loss of that community profoundly when the pandemic hit and I was unable to find solace there.
I was thinking at one point, when I was especially low, about calling my yoga teacher for help, to ask for his advice about how I could avoid sinking into grief and despondency. But the more I thought about it the more I realized I already knew, without having to ask, exactly what he would tell me to do: Practice Yoga.
But what does it really mean to practice yoga? And what does it mean to practice yoga in a time of crisis?
Certainly, moving the body through various postures in coordination with the breath, clearing the energy channels in the body and working thorough any blockages or stagnation of energy or emotion is one element of yoga, and an important one. In the type of yoga I practice, ashtanga yoga, one is meant to practice asana six days a week, ideally at the same time each day, doing the same postures in the same order. The constant repetition of a physical practice that cleanses and opens the physical and energetic body and that stills the fluctuations of the mind is most certainly a form of solace, especially at moments when things in the external world are constantly changing and seemingly out of our control.
When practiced with correct intention- with a spirit of curiosity, love, humility, and a hope to be an instrument of grace- the physical practice allows us to be more mindful, present, and compassionately engaged with ourselves and others in our community.
Yoga practice could also include any number of sadhanas, from kriyas that come from the Hatha yoga tradition to purify the body, to devotional Sanskrit chanting, to japa meditation, to pranayama, to reading and studying yogic texts. I have done all of these practices at various times, and they have helped to still my mind and to help me feel grounded and focused, less swayed by external circumstances.
But practicing yoga is more than that
Once I was visiting a friend and had agreed to teach a yoga class for her and her family. When we were about to start, her father, a scholar of yoga philosophy, came into the room wearing his work clothes, My friend commented that he must not be planning to practice yoga since he was not wearing yoga clothes. And her father gestured to the suit he was wearing, smiled, and said, “Maybe these are my yoga clothes.”
The point was well-taken. Yoga practice is not just a physical practice, and not just something that just happens in our solitary moments, when we are engaged in focused, dedicated spiritual practice. Yoga practice is something that we ideally do throughout our entire day, in all our interactions.
Yoga, to me, is living life as an elaborate vinyasa, or mindful, ritualistic coordination of movement and breath, with every thought and action imbued with correct intention and sincere effort to stand in being with divinity.
This is especially important at a time like this, a time of crisis, when we may feel untethered from the things we identify most closely with, swayed by circumstances beyond our control, powerless against forces much larger than we are. When we make our every thought, our every action, a yoga sadhana, we can take refuge in the beauty of our constant effort, however fumbling or awkward it may be, to see divinity in ourselves and others, and to be in harmony with – and eventually come to fully abide in – that divinity. And when we do this, it has a ripple effect; we begin to have a more yogic, or sattvic energy, which can help others connect with and cultivate their own sattvic energy. This can help keep us- and our communities- afloat in a time of crisis.
My Yoga Sadhana during Crisis
I am still in the process of figuring out what yoga sadhana looks like for me in a time of crisis, and specifically during this global pandemic.
One important element is making time for solitary spiritual practice. This often means, since I am also raising my son and trying to make a living, waking up hours before dawn, usually at three or four in the morning. But this is actually an ideal time for yogic practice anyway; the hours just before sunrise are known as Brahma Muhurta, the time of pure consciousness, when the energy is sattvic and conducive towards reaching a state of yoga.
Somedays, though, at this time of day I need to work instead, because I have a project I need to finish before my son wakes up. And so I try to do that cheerfully, with a sense of gratitude for having the work- strategy and fundraising for a collective that supports grassroots organizing for social change through narrative transformation and healing practices- and for being able to contribute something to the people who are at the front lines of strengthening our movements for justice.
Another element is maintaining the cleanliness and sacredness of my home, where, since social distancing, I now spend most of my time. I have set up an altar and brought in flowers and other elements from the natural world. I light candles at sunrise and sunset and when I am doing my yoga practice, and I burn natural incense and essential oils. I sometimes also make steam with healing herbs. I clean my home every night before bed so I awake to a place that is uncluttered and serene. And I have brought in images that inspire me to be at one with the natural world and the divine feminine..
A third is spending time in nature. I live within walking distance of a park that is big enough I can go there with my son while still practicing social distancing and teach him to climb trees and roll down hills, jump with him in mud puddles, and lie on the grass looking up a the sky. I also am fortunate to have a car, and so am able to go hiking or to the beach, to places where there are no other people, and remember that nature renews itself when allowed to, and that I am part of nature.
A fourth is making medicine. I am interested in home herbalism and love to make tinctures, syrups, and other medicines from plants. During this time, I have made lots of elderberry syrups to boost my immunity. I also have made steams and decoctions of bee balm and and mullein teas. Making my own medicine from the natural world helps me remember the interconnectedness of my health and the health of the planet, and also the practice of making it is a calming, healing process itself. I like to teach my son about it to, and have him smell and taste the plans and learn about their medicinal properties. I teach him to thank the plant and the earth, and to think about how he can use the health and vitality his food and other medicine imbue him with in order to help others.
Perhaps the most important, though, is being present. It is important, especially at a time like this, when we might feel pulled to dwell in the memory of what our life was like before the crisis and feel frustrated that we can’t return there, or to wait anxiously for an imagined future when our lives will return to normal, to instead be fully present in the current moment and to its teachings and other gifts. To, as Ram Das said, “Be Here Now” and remember that every moment and every interaction can teach us something that helps us along the yogic path, if we can be open to its teachings.
The other day after I had finished teaching an online asana class, I found my son sitting on the mat I had used and playing my harmonium, singing along. He told me, ” I am teaching yoga.” I smiled and replied that I was sure he would be a great yoga teacher one day. And he insisted, “No. I am a great yoga teacher RIGHT NOW.” And he was right.