Staying aware and woke in a time of stress isn’t easy, but yoga helps.
by Sara Kleinsmith
This week was a particularly challenging week for many Americans, and yoga teachers were no exception. The 2016 Election brought no shortage of anxiety to the electorate and a divided nation remains in the wake of one of the most tumultuous campaign seasons of all time. Now, with the election of the new president-elect, many are feeling fear, anxiety, and anger amidst uncertainty. Racism, misogyny, and nationalism are now officially an electable political platform in a country that has fought ardently against these ideals since its creation, and people are feeling the blow. As a yoga teacher, my job is to encourage people to breathe, feel, and to accept where they are. In a time like this, that request is much easier said than done. And that’s what makes it more important than ever.
If you currently practice yoga, you are likely well aware of its many benefits. If you’ve never done yoga, you’ve likely heard its praises sung in many circles. Yoga is everywhere now, and a part of our mainstream culture. There is a yoga class suited to every niche to the point of gimmickry. As I write this, someone is surely posting a set, convenient number of tips or yoga poses to help deal with the fallout of this election and the fear that accompanies. But I’m not going to do that. Because the truth is that what we are doing now, this self-inquiry as a collective, broken nation, THIS IS YOGA.
If you don’t know what I mean, get yourself to a class, or learn those “5 easy poses that will eliminate stress” and come back to this when you’re ready to delve into the practice of feeling pulverizing defeat and breathing through it. This pain that is being uncovered in our nation is, itself, the process of enlightenment. The term “woke” is now circulating as a defining word of pride for those who are willing to witness, love, and breathe through unimaginable injustice. These are the 21st century American yogis who have the capacity to change the world, simply by being conscious in it.
The practice of yoga gives us the tools to become aware.
Through breathing, moving, focusing, and investigating, we become aware in our practice of our limitations and abilities. It also opens us to the idea that the present moment, regardless of how crap-covered it may seem, is all we have. In that knowledge, we become free to accept where we are. We may even find a sense of safety or contentment in our ability to cope and a renewed perspective on suffering.
I remember lamenting to a wise teacher about a particularly traumatic current event involving rape and kidnapping of young girls a few years ago. I said to my teacher, “The world is so dark and terrible. I don’t know what to do about it.” He took a deep breath and nodded his head. “Sometimes, when I am feeling powerless about situations that are particularly destructive but beyond my control, I ponder how I’m accountable for that action. If we are all one collective, what have I done to myself or others that has contributed to this? In what ways am I imprisoning myself, as this man has imprisoned others? How am I violating my own rights or the rights of others? What can I do to change this behavior and find freedom in myself?” This forever changed the way I view power. I think of this often, especially in times like now, when I feel so challenged to remain optimistic.
What he was talking about was the power that comes with personal and spiritual accountability. This comes from the practice of self awareness. When we sense our own bodies, investigate our own feelings, and challenge our own thoughts, we become aware of what is guiding our actions day to day. Yoga teaches us that we are one collective and that our thoughts and actions impact others. When I make a decision to love myself—to breathe, or slow down, or move through my emotions—I am accountable for what I’m bringing to the collective. This is where my power resides. When I can step into my own power, I can move from a place of guided, conscious intention, and not reactionary anger or despair. Yoga has helped me learn to do this, and when I can’t, I have a practice to follow and a community to consult.
I’m not completely of mind that yoga can save the world. But I can say with certainty that it has saved my world.
My life, as well as the lives of many students, friends, and peers, have been positively affected by learning the tools of yoga. It has made me aware in good ways and in bad, and I now suffer the consequences of occasional illumination, or “woke”-ness.
It’s not easy, and it won’t be for a while. But while we are out here, fearing, we might as well be breathing together. And whether or not this adds to the peace in the world, it’s purely experiential. We’ll each have to see for ourselves. If it works for you, practice until it becomes habit. For the tools we discover in our practice are transmittable and teachable, to the point of being contagious. When we breathe, feel, and know, we are forever changed. Yoga isn’t about being calm, it’s about being woke. So allow yourself your feelings, and don’t forget to breathe. Because when we cannot become our own ideal of serenity, we can become the change.
Sara Kleinsmith is a nasty woman, mom, yoga teacher, writer, and anatomy geek in Austin, Texas. She’s written for Scary Mommy, Yogi Times, Elite Daily, Elephant Journal, and Thought Catalog. She is thrilled to be added to the list of voices for YogaDork. To learn more about her work go to www.sarakleinsmith.com.