Most American yoga studios offer donation classes, either as an ongoing method of giving back to the community or as an event-specific relief effort. There’s no doubt that it’s a wonderful practice; giving away instruction and giving away money are both laudable, valuable gestures. It was in light of this established standard that the idea of donations arose in conjunction with the recent murder of a Maryland Lululemon store’s employee, Jayna Murray, within almost 24 hours of the news, and the response was unsurprising. Donations have become many yoga communities’ default—and often, only—response to tragedy.
I know some of the Washingtonians who suggested or enacted yoga-related donations in response to Murray’s death. They are my friends and mentors, and they are kind, generous people acting with complete sincerity. (These suggestions and plans took place days before Murray’s family announced their intention to create a memorial fund; the intention was always to defer to her family about where the money went.) When we are moved by an event, we want to act and we want to act quickly. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder why a financial donation is the first response to a completely senseless act of violence. A good deed is always good, but donating money in Murray’s name didn’t make any more sense to me than reading to children in her name or volunteering at a nursing home. Isn’t the challenge of yoga to rise above our habits? Why is giving money now obligatory in the face of others’ deaths?
Of course donations are useful and necessary in situations in which resources can alleviate suffering. Admirably, numerous fundraising classes have been held been held (and continue to be held) in the name of Japanese relief. But in Murray’s case, there was no obvious cause to donate to—because there was no obvious way to alleviate this suffering. Practicality, as a response to this murder, had no place
As one YD commenter already pointed out, part of the painful reverberation of this crime involved where it took place, in a “white middle class” commercial-heavy neighborhood with lots of foot traffic. For many, our horror was tied to our sense of instability after having an assumed safe space revealed as no less dangerous than the rest of the world, particularly when the alleged murderer’s cover story was still believed, and the perpetrators were thought to be two motiveless rapists still at large. Bizarrely, once Murray’s co-worker was charged with the murder, the entire DC populace was relieved that the crime was “not random”—as if occasionally working an hourly wage job with someone capable of murder is something more normative or less disturbing than imagining the same brutality committed by a stranger on the street.
Furthermore, Lululemon is synonymous with yoga, and yoga is often synonymous with safety, both emotional and physical, for its practioners. For some local yogis, the attack on a Lululemon employee was experienced as an attack on the yoga community itself, even though no news coverage of the crime mentioned that Jayna herself practiced yoga although she liked cross fit training. There are over one hundred murders in DC proper each year, and I’ve never before seen so many people spring into yoga-based action after a local life is lost. (Similarly, most murders don’t result in local businesses creating a six-figure reward fund in only five days.)
Those grieving Jayna Murray, whether they knew her or personally or not, are entitled to their forms of comfort. I’m not faulting anyone for doing what they are called to do to address their pain or the pain of others. But yoga should not be used to create an illusion of control and money should not be our primary source of meaningful engagement with the world. I want my yoga community to be a space to be one in which we can acknowledge the feelings of fear and helplessness that arise when a life is taken, where we can together acknowledge our own fragility and impermanence, and where we don’t pretend there’s a right action for every wrong action.
I’ve been taught that part of a yoga practice is learning to be with discomfort, to observe your own struggle, and to use what Iyengar calls “the sensitivity of intelligence” that we develop in asana, before reacting. Is our attention on creating a communal space to experience and transform grief, or are we distracting ourselves with a routine response? In The Heart of Yoga, T.K.V. Desikachar says, “If there is time to consider the situation, don’t act.” I want a yoga community that can be just as powerful in action as it is in inaction, a community that can be quietly supportive without grasping for a solution. I want a yoga community that becomes more than a collection plate.
Monica Shores is a yoga instructor and writer living in Washington DC. You can follow her on twitter here @monicashores where she talks about cats, politics, and (occasionally) yoga.