I have a neighbor who is perhaps the kindest, most generous and considerate person I have ever met. Darren spends a lot of time outside, working on his house and in his yard. I’m always glad to see him. Even if I don’t interact with him, I smile at his presence, knowing that it’s a good thing for the world that he is in it, spreading good will to everyone around him. He doesn’t have to try. After so many years of practicing kindness, kindness is who he is.
A few years ago, Darren served a mission for his church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He served his mission because he sincerely believes that the world would be a kinder, more hospitable place if more people joined his church. I believe that if more people were like Darren, the world would be a kinder, more hospitable place, and I respect his commitment to his spiritual path. But I don’t agree that more people following any particular belief system or ideology will necessarily bring more peace and harmony to the world.
So when I hear people in the yoga world justifying the commercialization of yoga because “it brings more people to yoga” or “more people doing yoga will make the world a better place” I can’t help but think of every religious group that believes its version of the truth is the right one. Perhaps it is partially due to my conditioning after so many years of living in a place inhabited by a religious majority, but hearing this from yogis makes me cringe. It also causes me to squirm a bit because I spent 11 years feeling and saying the same thing. I felt with all my heart that the world would be a better place if more people did yoga.
I began practicing yoga in the early 1980s, and immediately fell in love with it. It has been my constant companion, my guide and my anchor for almost 30 years. Yoga—including all Eight Limbs—has saved my life in more ways than I can count. The Eight Limbs have given me a framework for practice that, as an agnostic, has helped me live a more intentionally kind, inclusive and conscious life. While I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience of yoga, I suspect that my practice has made me a better citizen of this world.
Twenty years ago, I was filled with the spirit of yoga evangelism. I couldn’t understand why anyone would not want to practice yoga. When I discovered meditation in 1988, I fell just as head over heels as I had for yoga. I had what I now call a sense of “spiritual arrogance.” I thought that anyone who practiced yoga and meditation was inherently more conscious than someone who didn’t. This, of course, included myself.
I went to as many retreats as I could afford, and although insight meditation was very challenging for me, the rewards of insight were well worth it. My psyche was moving, changing. I was gaining understanding I’d never imagined. The peace I often felt was beyond thought and words. I was delving deeper and deeper. Why doesn’t everybody do this? I thought.
Then, on 30-day silent retreat in 1992, I had an insight that changed me forever. In one earth-shaking moment, I understood the meaning of true self-love, and its relationship to universal love. My very cells rearranged themselves. In that moment, the feeling was beyond wonderful.
But the flipside is that any profound insight that instantly changes one at a cellular level will cause major upheaval. The process of changing your life after a major insight can be painstaking and painful, as I came to find out.
The following year was the most difficult of my life. My “stuff” was in my face 24 hours a day, including in my dreams. My pre-insight way of being had to die. It could not co-exist with the person I had become. There were no breaks, and there was no returning to my pre-insight bliss. The only way beyond it was to move through it with my eyes wide open.
In the midst of the chaos and anguish, I had a realization that I now believe was the bare beginning of my understanding of compassion. One day as I was lying in bed not wanting to get up, my mind flashed on my previous spiritual arrogance and I thought, “I totally get it why someone might not want to take this path. I wouldn’t wish this on anybody.” I was already committed, and I knew that this was my path, but I could no longer assume that anyone else would benefit from traversing the route I had chosen. The spiritual arrogance had been knocked out of me.
I realized, at a cellular level, that everyone’s path is truly unique. For the first time, I saw yoga and its place in the universe from a place of real expansion instead of my former me-centered viewpoint, and realized that more people doing yoga would not guarantee a better world. But more people respecting each other’s individual paths and preferences—Yoga, Mormonism, Buddhism, Islam, atheism, Catholicism, Judaism, no spiritual system, or the countless other spiritual and non-spiritual practices that make up the colorful palette of humanity—might bring about a positive shift.
Do I think that yoga can be a positive force in the world? Absolutely. Even the bare minimum—going to an asana class and running through some quick, sweat-inducing exercises—is positive. Again and again, research shows that physical movement increases circulation and keeps the body—including the brain—healthy and agile. That’s a positive thing.
Do I think yoga is for everyone? I don’t know. I’m grateful for yoga’s presence in my life—the times when it has been impossibly beautiful and the times when it has been wrenchingly difficult. And I’m heartened by the kindness and wisdom of my sangha. But I can’t know unequivocally what is best for anyone else.
I do believe that practicing the “Golden Rule” with its parallels in the yamas of yoga—ahimsa (non-harming)—as well as its correlates in virtually every other spiritual system, can change lives. I believe that if everyone practiced non-harming with consciousness and commitment, the world would be a radically different place. Practicing non-harming may even help us meet the Darrens of the world, who will probably never practice yoga, without pondering how much happier they would be if only they took the same path that we have come to love.