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Beyond Donations: How Are We Using Yoga To Heal?

in Ethics, YD News, Yoga Crime

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.

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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.

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13 comments… add one

  • I love this article for pointing out what many of us feel. Too much of what is going on in the world is “throwing money at a situation” for fear of being judged which, can be no more “thoughtful” than doing nothing at all. It may only give the illusion of caring in some situations than saying a loving prayer which I feel is more. We need spiritual healing in this world not the monetary donation panacea.
    Love, Light, Blessings, & Hugs – Namaste’

  • I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. In Australia and New Zealand we’ve had what seems to be a season of natural disasters — bush fires, floods, cyclones, earthquakes. And, as you say, in those situations money is certainly needed to help with the initial rescue, the clean up, and the rebuilding. But just defaulting to donating is surely not so good.

    Maybe this is on my mind because I’m very poor financially at the moment, and really don’t have money to donate. But I tend to agree with you that our reaction (even if it is a helpful one) should be considered — particularly in a situation like the horrible Lululemon murder.

    I think most people (myself included) don’t know what to do to be of any assistance, so they give money. I don’t know what the answer is, and this poor girl’s family is probably in no state to sit down and work out what other support they might need. But I agree that pausing to think a little deeper about how best to offer support in this kind of situation might allow us to find ways to show our compassion when money might not really be what’s needed.

    Thank you for voicing some of the issues I’d had floating around in my head.

  • I love how you point out what I see in spiritual circles in general and in yoga particularly, this ideas that ‘there’s a right action for every wrong action.’ It’s the concept of karma without the context of the tradition and philosophy to which it belongs.

    I wonder how much of the money giving was an attempt to staunch the sharp and painful realization that just because somebody does yoga or works in a place so closely tied to yoga it doesn’t mean they are behaving along yoga’s ethical lines.

  • Monica I agree with you – but question for you – what would you do differently to show you support or bring attention to the situation in a way that would help bring peace?

  • Blissful Girl

    Why not look to the perpetrator to find an opportunity to help. What caused this young woman to murder a co-worker? Troubled childhood, mental illness, abuse, drug addiction, etc. Volunteer to help those at risk.

  • In our desire to fix everything, we can miss the lessons taught by sitting with pain and chaos and empathizing with others.

    Yoga Behind Bars, an amazing Seattle-based group, needs volunteers (from paper work to volunteer teaching) and has a wonderful certification program. Sharing yoga with at-risk youth, the imprisoned, the homeless and the traumatized (such as the Somali women in yesterday’s Seattle Times front page article) divulges the depth of healing for which yoga is cherished.

    Helping and healing are most often the quietest of acts, freely given by people who care for the souls of others and do not care about fame. It is good to be thoughtful and sceptical about the panacea of money.

  • This is a brave article! I like the idea of understanding our reactions/actions even when they have good intentions. I’m wondering if maybe there are certain situations where money is the obvious answer and need, like Japan’s natural disaster. (Unless someone else does not agree with that statement.) But we could, perhaps, learn to be more discriminating in other situations and see where volunteering or action of some kind, like cooking a meal or building a house is more appropriate.

  • Elizabeth

    What if we had a day of yoga and service instead of a donation fund? Like let’s do yoga for two hours and then go pick up trash in the community? How many of us would go to yoga and skip the service project? Would anyone come just for the service project?

    What if we took yoga out of the studio, went to the places where people were injured, did yoga there and brought mats to invite others to use? How many of us would go do yoga in the ‘hood? Woud it be well received?

  • Elizabeth, these are great and the kind of ideas I was looking for. It may be much more healing to do yoga and then take that inspiration to some kind of community clean-up, or invite people to join in for the experience who normally wouldn’t. It would be a good experiment to see who showed up to what, very interesting!

    As for yoga in the “hood”…well that depends. If we’re talking about my hood it’s already happening. I think we need to be more careful using a term like that especially for people who are reading this blog from more urban/metropolitan areas where teachers are already doing their thing in communities not as affluent.

  • Monica

    I am so honored by all of these amazing and insightful comments! Thanks to all of you for your kind words and thoughtful responses.

    Blissful Girl—Brittany Norwood, the accused murderer, was well-educated and does not seem to have a history of mental illness.

    Maria—If you mean the Lululemon situation specifically, then I would question the idea that I need to play any role in the event at all, beyond recognizing and examining my own response. I did not know the victim, the accused murderer, nor anyone else directly effected, and (this may sound strange) it seems to me like a form of selfishness to make this tragedy about myself or to take it as a sign that *I* need to do something to make other people act.
    If you mean tragic situations in general, then I would say that’s what I was trying to emphasize in this article: there is not one appropriate response for every unfortunate situation. What exactly are we “bringing attention to”? And what type of attention are we inviting? (Or to put it another way, what type of energy are we cultivating? Is it self-congratulatory? Is it ego-based? Is it communal? Is it careful?) I think those questions should be asked and re-asked any time strong emotions are running high if we want to act with integrity and clarity. If we are doing good things simply because they’re good (teaching yoga for free, cleaning up a park, donating canned goods,) we can do them any time without a tragic event as the motivation. If we want to act with true purpose, we have to assess the unique set of needs in each particular circumstance and move from there.

  • Sam

    How on earth can doing yoga help starving people in the Sudan, homeless Haitian after the earthquake or any other huge disaster??

  • K

    I would be curious to know how the author has determined that financial donations were the most common response of “the yoga community” in this situation? I agree that money is not always the best course of action, but sometimes there is a tendency to overgeneralize based on one’s own immediate surroundings.

    I practice at a studio near the store where the murder took place – and I didn’t hear requests for donations… some of my teachers spoke about their thoughts on how yoga would have a person be with this situation or the feelings that may arise, and others did not.

    Regardless of whether the suspect had a history of mental illness or not – do we really not believe that yoga could make no difference in someone who might otherwise be inclined to respond in this way? Can we honestly look at this country and feel sure that everyone has equal access to means of taking care of themselves physically, mentally and emotionally?

    I think we cannot – and there are organizations working to make yoga more widely accessible. They include Street Yoga (Portland, with national trainings), Anahata Grace (DC), Prison Yoga (CA), YogaHope (MA), and many others. We live in an expensive world and I would bet that those organizations would be grateful for monetary donations to keep their work going.

  • Monica

    Oof, this is such a belated response! But to reply to K, I received many emails from people who were organizing donations or donation-based classes. I saw no reason to name names in the article and I will not name them now.

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