Yoga for Freedom
by Sarahjoy Marsh
This woman’s comment speaks to a compelling (and urgent) reality. Life is an interconnected majesty of intelligence, love, and beauty. It is a web more powerful than most of us can grasp, yet one we are amazingly capable of temporarily overriding, suppressing, or fracturing into mental compartments intended to protect us from that which would actually save us.
What she speaks to reveals the intricacies and possibilities that are ever present to us when we recognize the intelligent web that sustains us internally and the interconnected webs that we participate with externally. For example, speaking internally, most of us know we have stress hormones that respond to the perceived demands and stimulations of the world around us. Yet so few of us organize our thinking, acting, relating, scheduling, eating, drinking, or sleeping based on the information available to us from our bodies. Externally, most of us look at the systems that we are required to organize ourselves within, like traffic signals and taxes, but we consider less frequently the systems that we contribute to as community members.
This student realized a connection between listening to her body—which she had likely been more or less estranged from in different ways for years—and opening up to what others have to say in contributing to her life. A personal shift for her translated directly into an interpersonal shift as well. As a yoga teacher, I see this connection immediately and repeatedly. When we learn to be respectful of and listen to our body’s wisdom, we learn a host of other skills as well, such as sensitivity, curiosity, responding instead of reacting, distress tolerance (or tolerance of confusion, jubilation, frustration, etc.), and staying present despite distractions. All of these skills help us to respond to our internal systems and to bring more to the external systems that we participate in constantly (even when we are saying “No” to a specific form of participation, our No is the way we affect the system).
But how many of us have cultivated the sensitivity that would allow us to deeply listen and wisely respond to the physical, psychological, and energetic data of the moment (the information offered up by our bodies, minds and hearts, as well as from our families, friends and community members), even though we certainly know how to respond when the breaker goes off in the basement as we overheat the circuit with the toaster, space heater and blow dryer?
Almost 20 years ago, my intrigue with “systems thinking” brought me to the path of yoga. A life-changing event during graduate school triggered a compulsion for social justice that would eventually become Living Yoga. While I was helping clients develop their listening skills, the larger community, in the form of the government of Massachusetts, stopped listening to the needs of an important, but challenging, group of citizens. As an art therapist and exercise program leader, I was supporting the residents of a facility for people living with chronic mental illness to get centered, feel less anxious, express themselves more skillfully, and listen more readily to what their body was feeling in the present moment. When the government enacted budget cuts that resulted in our facility being shut down, my clients became homeless persons.
The impact on me: deflation, disillusionment, and major questions about by own value to the community (I also lost my job and associated this with a lack of respect for the social work I was determined to do in support of individuals and communities). For me, the breaker in the basement had just shut off. For my clients, it had also shut off. They were now homeless, living without their medications, and seriously lacking job and social skills.
Sadly, this was not a one-time break down in our listening as a culture. We have long-term habits of marginalizing the challenging citizens of our community. And those persons who end up in the margins suffer the impacts of going unheard, unseen or unvalued. Once an individual internalizes the messages of how the larger community sees them, those messages become systemically woven into their body, mind, heart, and psyche.
Ironically, those of us who are not in the “margins” suffer as well. We’re internalizing messages about our place in the world too.
When we’ve stopped listening to our bodies, to each other, to critical imbalances in our cultural web, we all suffer a tremendous disconnection from the very things that would restore us...our integrity, humanity, compassion, love, and wisdom. Our student at the prison said it well. Her shift came as she learned to listen to her body. Our time on the yoga mat offers us a laboratory for discovery. We can see our habits, limitations, capacities, fears, courageousness, and faith within the muscles and cells of our body. During a yoga practice we have the opportunity to observe our relationship to ourselves and the ways in which we shut down, get distracted, over-effort, attempt to dominate, shy away from, force control over, or get discouraged by minor bumps in the road. We also have the opportunity to initiate radical shifts in the system. We learn how to turn the breaker back on in the basement and begin to listen anew.
But what about the larger system in which we live and to which we contribute? Creating change in this system may seem more daunting, may appear to require more courage, may enact a greater risk. What are the risks we face in not challenging the current system? What are the risks we face in continuing to live in the imbalances with which we’ve participated and continue to participate?
Though we may not come to yoga until we’re injured, stressed, or depressed, the signs and symptoms for long-term injury or illness have often been present for much time prior to the “breaking point.” Similarly, our cultural imbalances have been systemic for generations, symptoms continue to arise, and more breaking points will come. Until we address the core patterns underlying these imbalances—our sense of separateness, compartmentalization of ourselves and each other, our capacity to shun, marginalize, dis-empower, institutionalize, or push to the shadows important aspects of our humanity—our communities will continue to suffer the ails of crime, social injustice, poverty, violence, addiction, and homelessness.
Living Yoga was my attempt to be part of the solution in this regard. Now a mature organization (this marks our 11th year), we know we are affecting systemic change in individuals, families and the community. We teach in some of the more marginalized settings in the community—prisons, low-income drug and alcohol rehab facilities (for teens and adults), transitional shelters, homeless youth resource centers, and a center for prostitutes recovering their lives. We are as inspired by our students as they are by the teachings of yoga. Weekly we witness the courageousness of heart in our students’ desires to begin anew in a life that has purpose, strength, and belonging. As women living in prison have told me, they are quite starkly aware of their position in the community. They feel “warehoused”—though warehoused is not technically a “feeling.” They’re also aware of the label with which they will be identified forever: Ex-Convict. When they are released they will face both personal and societal identity challenges. They will directly encounter our cultural habit of shunning by labeling. This is one of the areas where yoga becomes the most compelling.
Yoga teaches us to slow down, to get present, curious, aware, and to stay alert to our judgments, aversions and attachments. While our students are heartily working on this within the walls of the prison, rehab center, or other settings in their life, we, the “non-marginalized” have a responsibility too. If we want to live in freedom, ease, sustainability, and with enthusiasm for our lives, we, too, need to slow down, get present, curious, and aware. And we need to stay alert to our judgments such that they don’t cloud us from seeing the gem of potential in the persons before us. As our student remarked at the beginning of this article, when we learn to listen to our bodies, we will learn to listen to others around us. When we learn to listen to all members of our community, we will catalyze a community of immense potential able to direct resources toward the changes we all aspire to while maintaining respect for each others’ life path.
Sarahjoy Marsh is the Founder and Board Chair for Living Yoga, a non-profit yoga outreach organization based in Portland, OR.