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With Me or Against Me

Photo by Andrea Killam

People are asking, “Why is there a culture of silence in Yoga?”

Something that often makes people go silent is “all or nothing” and “with me or against me” thinking. It is the idea that everything is black or white and you have to choose a side. If folks don’t want to choose a side, they will often just go silent. When the person speaks up, they get crucified by both sides for not choosing. This results in shutting down the conversation and shutting down the person.

You can hate someone’s choices around a particular event but totally still love and respect everything else about them. You can love your spouse or partner, but totally dislike some of the things they do. You can like your job but dislike the politics involved in working there. You can like a restaurant but not enjoy all the dishes on the menu.

If I tell you that the Earth is round and the sky is green, does the fact that I lied about the sky being green negate the fact that the Earth is round? Truth and untruth can exist in the same situation. Good and bad can exist in one person.

The yoga community trains people to stay silent through shaming people for their views and covering up uncomfortable feelings with spiritual ideas that have been grossly used outside of their proper context.

One of the platitudes the yoga community uses for shutting down feelings, emotions and discussions is, “we are all one.” The Yoga Sutras teaches the path of Raja yoga in successive steps. Throughout the Sutras, Patanjali gives signs and pointers that let us know whether or not we are ready for the next successive steps.

There are many steps that come before “we are one”. Patanjali actually uses separation as a teaching and meditation tool. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali starts by separating out the vrittis or types of thoughts so that we can understand when these thoughts are “klishta” or “aklishta” harmful or harmless. This technique is continued throughout the book to talk about many concepts such as Yamas (ethics), Kleshas (obstacles), and Samadhi (states of meditation). Through being able to see when we are behaving in unethical ways, when we are mired in our obstacles and when to use certain objects of meditation, we can learn who we are and, yes, experience a feeling of oneness.

Until we understand where we are blocking the experience of oneness, we cannot experience it. Simply saying, “we are all one” is often not enough. If it was, we wouldn’t need 196 sutras. Patanjali could have just written, “we are all one” and been done with it. Being able to look at our thoughts and actions and how they affect the world is a part of the yogic path. Shutting that process down is not.

“We are one” does not come in until the last Samadhi which is the most advanced state of meditation there is. The first types of meditation/Samadhi use objects, or separation, in order to help us find a state of oneness. When you focus on an object of meditation, there is the focuser, the object and the knowledge of the object. This means there is separation. As you go higher up the Samadhi ladder, you may drop knowledge of the object but there is still the focuser and the object. The final stage of meditation is the only one where the person does not use an object and there is a full complete feeling of oneness. In order to function, the person cannot stay in that state of meditation. Why? Because you cannot interact with the objects around you if you cannot identify them as being separate from you. To interact, there must be an object and the person interacting with the object.

Yes. We are all one and we can experience this on certain levels. However, if you are interacting with the world, a basic concept of knower and knowable or object and focuser has to be present. This is the Ahamkara, “the I maker” which is a part of the evolution of nature that we needed to exist on earth.

“We are all one” is not an appropriate statement for all situations. Being on a level where you can completely not use your Ahamkara for a period of time is extremely advanced. The Sutras say that you know you are here when your mental modifications or reactivity to your thoughts and the world around you are so weak that you become like a pure crystal that can reflect what is near it but nothing sticks to it. If you or the person you are speaking with is experiencing reactivity, it is a sign that “we are all one” is to far a jump for the conversation.

If we are to get rid of the culture of silence in the yoga world, we must throw out the “you are with me or against me” mentality. When we make people feel that, if they don’t take a side, their opinion does not matter, we get silence. The conversation is shut down. If you want the yoga world to change, the conversations must continue. This is done by honoring where someone is at while still being strong about your own point of view.

You may be saying to yourself, “not making a choice is a choice.” I am not talking about people who have not actually made a choice. I am talking about people that have made a choice that doesn’t fit into a black and white paradigm. I am going to give you some examples that are random and do not necessarily reflect my views. Examples:

“I love America but I hate our President and his policies.”

“Pattabhi Jois saved my life but ruined many others.”

“I love how Lululemon fits me but they need to make clothes for all bodies.”

” I don’t feel people should enter America illegally but I am adamantly against immigrant children being separated from their families.”

Marichi D was incredibly beneficial to me but I don’t feel that it is right for everyone.”

“Sharath should remain the lineage holder of Ashtanga but he needs to make a statement about what is going on in the yoga world.”

These are decisions. They don’t fit into the for or against, hate or love, all or nothing box. In my close to two decades of being in the Yoga community, most people, I have met, fall into the category where they agree with some things and not with others. This is a valid category. If you shut these people down, you shut down the majority of the voices in the community. If you want to break the silence, these people need to be allowed to speak.

Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail [email protected]