True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
This is one of my favorite Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes. The yoga perspective on social justice is essentially that we are not actually separate from each. We are connected. Yet, we appear to be separate. On the surface, what we may see is differences, distinctions. For example, I am well acquainted with my culture. I’m not as sure about yours. I know what I’m comfortable with. We are not all comfortable with the same things. I am more comfortable with what’s familiar to me. That which I’m not familiar with, I might find unappealing or even repulsive, or be consciously or unconsciously afraid of it. Differences tend to be prominent and these differences can easily eclipse where we are united.
A yogic perspective would say that this is the function of seeing life through the lens of mind. We take life in through the senses and the mind tries to make sense of it and attribute meaning to it. The great wisdom traditions teach us that everything is impermanent, meaning that the only certainty is that things will change. However, the mind’s instinct is to create certainty even when it doesn’t exist. This is called black and white thinking. Can you remember a moment when something that you formerly believed would always be true turned out to be different or even false? The adjustments required when we are disillusioned all of a sudden can be traumatic, which may be why we sometimes opt to live in illusion and push away evidence of uncomfortable truths.
Through the practice of yoga we become less reactive to discomfort, able to tolerate more sensation. We learn to be present to our own inner experience which creates a connection to self. Through the practice of yoga we come to sense connection where once we experienced difference and division.
The initial practices of yoga are also known as yamas and niyamas. If we take them in sequence, (which is not necessary, but fascinating) we begin with non-violence, truthfulness, and non-stealing. These are known as the first three yamas. The yamas are considered restraints. Restraint from our “animal instincts.” And yoga invites us to take these practices through a spectrum from gross to subtle, from non-violence to others to non-violence to myself. From deed to word to thought.
These practices guide us in the same way as the maxim found in most religions and cultures, the golden rule – treat others as I would like to be treated, with respect, kindness and fairness.
Ultimately these practices are an inside job. How I treat others in thought, word and deed is a reflection of how I treat myself in thought, word and deed.
I also hear the words of the other great non-violent social activist of the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” For me, it takes regular practice to remember to be kind, fair and respectful to myself. Regular practice is especially necessary to appreciate the effect of my thoughts, words and deeds on the subtle levels of my being. Making change on the subtle levels is the nursery of the biggest changes in how I think, how I speak and how I act.
And, so, what about justice? Justice is related to fairness, isn’t it? To act in fairness, I need to practice those yamas. Do no harm. Don’t bully others with the voice or privilege I have been given. Be honest with myself. Have the courage to be truthful to others. Be generous. Don’t take what is not offered freely. With courage, compassion and humility, may I be the change that I seek in this world.