YOGA FOR PEACEVitality Magazine June 1, 2003
How Personal Peace Can Influence Community Building
“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”
– Sy Miller and Jill Jackson
The opening lyrics of this famous song reflect the notion that each one of us has the capacity and responsibility to cultivate peace within ourselves and our lives. When we are filled with conflict and negativity, we “act out” our inner turbulence unconsciously with others and attract similar responses from them, creating behaviours that limit our lives and relationships. When we are mentally and emotionally centred in ourselves, calm and focused, we have a much greater capacity to create “space” in our relationships, thereby decreasing conflict and reactivity. The ability to take that space, to be aware of instinctual responses and change them to reflect inner peace, is a fundamental goal of personal growth and self-development work.
There are many ways to achieve the goal of creating space in our lives. Today, many of us find this space through art, music, dance, and nature. Traditional practices that calm the mind and encourage self-reflection, such as Tai Chi, meditation, and yoga, have helped individuals cultivate this space for centuries. How the space is created is highly individual and secondary in relevance to its presence.
In the practice of yoga, various tools are used to create greater inner awareness, release cellular memories of ingrained habitual reactions and honour our bodies as our personal sanctuaries. Asanas — physical yoga postures — meet us where we are in the present moment and provide opportunities for growth in mind, body, and spirit. Stretching our muscles consciously, while using our breath as an anchor for our minds, creates tremendous physical benefits and a greater capacity for mental concentration.
Other tools used in the practice of yoga are meditation, chanting, and pranayama (breath work). The purposes of these activities are to connect us with ourselves and generate awareness of our interconnectedness with all beings. The result is that we can consciously co-create peaceful life experiences. While meditation trains us to “dis-identify” from our thoughts and develop non-judgmental awareness and clarity, pranayama moves stagnant emotional energy out of our bodies, releasing limiting patterns. Chanting helps us generate positive energy in our bodies by discharging stale energy through our voices, while attuning our bodies’ energy centres to specific sound vibrations. Like getting our cars tuned up, chanting is a tune up for our bodies.
As an integrated system of healing, yoga enables us to manifest positive change in our lives through non-judgmental awareness or “mindfulness” and the development of the compassionate mind. When our minds are trained to be compassionate and supportive of ourselves, it is much easier to extend this same compassion and support to others. Transforming negative thoughts about ourselves and others into loving, non-judgmental thoughts allows experiences of peace and joy to emerge in our relations and communities.
PERSONAL PEACE: BUILDING BLOCK OF PEACEFUL COMMUNITIES
“When we are firmly established in non-violence, all beings around us cease to feel hostility,”
– Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras.
The positive value of practising yoga, or other mindfulness-based disciplines, extends well beyond our individual lives to our neighbourhoods, cities, countries and, indeed, the entire world. World peace is not a condition that is created through enlightened diplomacy or political action; these are external effects. The cause of peace originates within our individual inner lives. As world citizens, we can be catalysts for external manifestations of peace in our local, national, and international communities by committing to practices like yoga that establish personal peace.
Jerry Brown, the former governor of California and current Mayor of Oakland, California, recognizes the broader, societal value of practising yoga. A committed yoga enthusiast, Brown hosts a weekly yoga class for the citizens of his city at his communal home and public commons. Side by side, the butcher, the baker and the candlestick-maker practise asanas, pranayama, chanting, and meditation in the auditorium at the mayor’s converted warehouse residence.
For some of us, the connection between yoga, politics, and public life may seem tenuous but Mayor Brown has a clear vision of this connection; he believes that the local is the building block of the national and the personal is the building block of the public. In his mind, the commitment of yoga offers civic as well as individual benefits and can have a positive influence on local and global community building.
Brown’s concept of yoga practice as a community-building activity that can nourish public life is undoubtedly revolutionary, but not unrealistic. In fact, community building and yoga share similar objectives and results. Both encourage citizens to assume responsibility for their own lives, resulting in self-reliance, self-confidence and, ultimately, peace.
Brown’s inspiring vision beckons us to imagine how we can make commitments to creating personal peace through activities like yoga and find opportunities to express these commitments publicly in our local communities. Yoga for Peace is one such opportunity. This event, taking place at Nathan Phillips Square on July 5, aims to inspire citizens to practise yoga as one of the many means of creating personal, and communal peace. Yoga studios and teachers from across Toronto are inviting all citizens — novices and yoga practitioners alike — to participate in a morning of yoga at our city’s public square.
Sometimes, in our individual and communal lives, the experience of peace may seem like an elusive dream. Yet, peace is our birthright, and the ability to create the space that leads to peace is a gift we all share. Committing to a mindfulness-based activity is one way of creating this space. In Patanjali’s words, “Through practice of the various disciplines that restore a person to wholeness, all that is impure is destroyed, and the ability to tell which is really real flowers into the light of pure knowing.”