Peace hangs by a breath: International Yoga Day

(First published on June 21, 2015, on the DNA website)

Yoga Day will bring a fragment of a moment of peace to thousands of people around the world. That is powerful and precious and that is enough. Peace, as Thich Nhat Hahn teaches, is every step.

Last year, when the Prime Minister announced that June 21 would be observed as International Yoga Day, I paid little attention. The fate of most observance dates is no secret, and it seemed to me to be one of many empty declarations that heads of government make on foreign tours. The professional international relations observer discounts these as fillers. I also didn’t think yoga needed promotion; that, I still don’t think. But in the run-up to International Yoga Day, I must confess that I have enjoyed all the articles and features published on the subject, and I think that the preparations for yoga demonstration and free yoga classes are a very constructive activity.

If all International Yoga Day meant was that thousands of people stopped their insane, imbalanced, gadget-driven, stressful lives for fifteen minutes and tried something new—a long exhalation, for instance—I think it would be worthwhile. I think it will make for at least one calmer day around the world. One day when people may be less inclined to snap at each other. One day with a little less road-rage. One day when many worried minds find a split second of peace. One second in one day, when you are able to be in the moment, and time—and with it, worry—stand still.

Several years ago, looking at ideas about reconciliation in Indian tradition, I started to look at the work that contemporary teachers call their peace work. Across the board, they were not stepping into the breach between armed groups and saying, “Stop, war is bad.” They were not even doing the kind of work the Quakers have done for decades, mediating or serving as interlocutors in the middle of intractable conflicts, building bridges. Volunteers were simply teaching yogic kriyas, meditation and offering opportunities for the community to gather and share—through satsang. These techniques helped people living with conflict deal with stress and anger. They offered healing to those who were traumatised emotionally and physically. And the gatherings offered a sense of community where conflict has broken families, destroyed support systems and left people to live with grief and a sense of loss. As individuals make peace with their drastically changed lives, they find ways to reach out to each other and to give back to the community—for service is also a part of their outreach.

Yoga is not just the stretching, bending and breathing. Any real yoga teacher or therapist will combine breathing, moving, stillness, chanting and silence in ways that suit who you are. The healing happens on many levels. Conflict is not confined to war-zones either. It is in every act or deed of cruelty or violence we inflict on each other. And peace is positively defined to exist when all that we value as a good life is available to us. In this article, I try to understand how yoga and peace work go together.

One of the first things you learn in a yoga class is to lengthen your breath. You learn to calibrate your inhalation and exhalation. You learn—either because your teacher tells you or because you experience it—that a short swift exhalation energises while a longer exhalation relaxes you. It’s all about how you exhale. That is true of all situations. It’s not just how slowly you exhale during pranayama or during one movement of an asana; it’s also a metaphor what you send back out into the world. Will you slow down enough to choose your words with care and deliberation? Will you let go of your negative emotions before you react? The exhalation is sometimes incorporated in meditation exercises as a way of letting go of negative emotions—lust, anger, greed, temptation, pride and envy—and egotism, of course. On a collective, long exhalation today, even a grudging surrender of a fraction of our negativities will make the world a better place.

Through pauranik stories, you read about people who have or have not achieved control over their senses. By teaching you how to control your movement, your breath and your energy, yoga ultimately begins to show you how to control your senses (and passions). In that sense, the surrender of negative emotions in meditation exercises is a beginning, I guess. But think just of the Mahabharata—Dhritarashtra’s attachment to his sons, Duryodhana’s envy and greed, Karna’s anger, Dushasana’s temptation and the pride and ego of several lead players together precipitated a conflict that ended a yuga. We are not very different. Controlling our senses would mean curbing conspicuous consumption, for instance, which could have very positive economic, social and environmental impact. Yoga could set in motion the transformation that allows us to slowly limit our wants and our needs, so that we did not need to encroach, exploit or enslave each other.

Yoga teachers (and others) tell you to watch your breath, and to watch with attention, not painful concentration. You simply notice that you are breathing in and then you notice that you are breathing out. In, then out, then in, then out. Thich Nhat Hahn offers us a little poem to go with that: “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.” The breath brings us to the present moment, which teachers like to pun and tell you is the real ‘present.’ Yoga brings the body and mind gently into that present moment that we scarcely have the time for in a day. We are too obsessed with what has gone before and too busy preparing for what we think is going to follow. In the present moment, there are no inherited grievances and no residual trauma. In the present moment, the future is speculation. Perhaps, after practising yoga for a while, we learn to take this mindfulness into other parts of our lives. Yoga might create the space for us talk about forgiveness, reconciliation or even forgetting.

As we watch our breath, we learn also to become a witness to our thoughts. As we attempt to do pranayama or to meditate, our untrained minds wander. The inner monologue has its own agenda. “Inhale 1-2-3-4. 4 reminds me I have a meeting at 4. That document needs to be photocopied before that. So and so always forgets their meetings. I should remind them. I dislike having to make phone calls.” The mind has left the yoga practise temporarily and we are asked to witness its wandering without judgement and simply bring it back to “Exhale 1-2-3-4-5-6.” If one mastered this, one might reach the point where as the jaw clenched, the heart beat a little faster and one’s voice rose a notch, one could say, “I seem to be getting angry,” and simply bring oneself back to the action at hand. Being a witness means being self-aware enough that all blame for any situation cannot possibly rest solely with another. When the blame-game is muddied by such self-awareness, conflict resolution is not a zero-sum process. Perhaps, over time, with practice, you learn to look for mutually beneficial solutions.

Yoga has also taught me to pay attention to the pauses and interstices. In some asanas, you are asked to hold a pause for a few seconds. You may or may not breathe in that pause, but you are always expected to be aware of your form and your breath. And then, when you hold your breath between an inhalation and exhalation, what is that interval called? I would hope this habit of attention would translate into a sensitivity for subtle messaging, nuanced conflict or social analysis and most importantly, listening for the silences and omissions—the things your interlocutors in a negotiation or peace process do not say. Conflict transformation depends on such sensitivity.

Peace is only complete when there is general well-being. Yoga (or Tai Chi or Qi Gong) certainly helps with that. If that is not intrinsically valuable to you, think of this: Better individual and community health mean fewer sick-days and lower health-care costs. Better health means better incomes, better incomes mean more spending, more spending is good for the economy no matter what your economic ideology. It keeps more people in jobs and keeps them from debt, trafficking or suicide. In turn, that means fewer oppressed, angry and resentful people. That’s a dramatic syllogistic argument, but just think, a world full of people with better immunity and less prone to long illnesses with costly treatments, has got to be a good thing!

International Yoga Day is not important to us because it allows us to show our ‘soft power.’ Like all good things, yoga belongs to and empowers all of humanity, not just India. It is important because if enough people stop to either practise or just watch (even to mock) yoga today, they will have spent time in something that hurts no one, including themselves. Moreover, while yoga does not need state promotion, if Yoga Day initiatives take yoga teaching into every corner of this country and generate interest in learning one of the most accessible health-care systems around, then such an observance date can be a really good thing.

Ignore the silly claims, set aside the self-aggrandizement and consider for just one moment what it means that through a single day, people all over the world will take the time to breathe slowly, to channel their energy, to release their tension and to do something for our collective well-being. Thousands of people will emerge relaxed, if not “blissed out” and in a good mood from the day’s festivities. It’s actually quite wonderful to think about such a world! Conflict, disaster, trauma and stress have become a normal part of most of our lives. Yoga Day will bring a fragment of a moment of peace to thousands of people around the world. That is powerful and precious and that is enough. Peace, as Thich Nhat Hahn teaches, is every step.

Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist by training and the founder of Prajnya. She spends a lot of time thinking about peace and conflict but her knowledge of yoga is just an incomplete mosaic of unsystematically gathered learning over a lifetime. 

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