During my teacher training, I had a classmate who struck me as strong and vulnerable at the time. The first time I heard her speak was during the night we all had to introduce ourselves. Even though all of us said very similar things because we all felt quite connected to the Jivamukti practice, we each had our own personal details about how we got into Jivamukti and how the practice spoke to us. Many of us were vegans, and all of us felt we belonged there, that we found ourselves accepted in Jivamukti, that we found a home for our spirit.
Katherine, that is her name, worked for human rights causes for her day job at that time. At the same time, she feels strongly about animal rights and wants to do something about it. She pondered the question: Should I join the ALF or should I become a yoga teacher?
ALF stands for the Animal Liberation Front. They are an informal group of individuals who take direct action to liberate animals. What this means is that they dress up in all black, like burglars, and break into private property, like burglars, except instead of stealing, they give freedom back. Something they would do is break into an animal testing lab to rescue beagles who were bred for testing purposes and subjected to painful and unnecessary procedures day in and day out. (If you are not familiar with such standard procedures that are considered normal in our society, I suggest looking into animal tests and vivisection. The documentary Earthlings covers this component of animal use.) What the ALF does is illegal. They risk their own freedom and their own lives to do this kind of work. I will not hesitate in saying that to me they are heroes. And they are needed. And they do admirable work in the frontlines.
Katherine chose to become a Jivamukti Yoga Teacher. So did I. I think we all have to make choices that make sense to us. We have to choose a path that allows us to heed our calling, to contribute to the good of the world, while having the space necessary for us to surrender. We choose to do what we can exert our best effort in, and we leave the results to take care of themselves.
Jivamukti Yoga teaches that activism is part of the practice, that to live the principles of yoga means we are conscious of what we think, say, and do. We acknolwedge our active participation in the world. To be an activist in the world, we practice ahimsa (nonviolence). To be a spiritual activist, we practice both ahimsa (nonviolence) and bhakti (devotion). I am not saying that the ALF or those who choose direct action do not have bhakti or that a specific way of doing things is required for the practice of bhakti. All I am saying is we get to choose in what way we can incorporate these two tenets of Jivamukti Yoga in our lives. In what way are we most effective and humble and loving and compassionate?
For many of us, it is easier to focus on the active components of our lives. We see this too in our yoga asana practice- to push hard, to hold the pose, to tense up- that is what we think it is all about. But the releasing component is just as present. It is present in every exhalation, every forward bend, every savasana, every meditation practice.
It is the same with our activism. For many vegans or activists involved in working towards elimination of violence of any kind, it is easy to get consumed with anger and hopelessness and resentment and self-righteousness. But we do need to take breaks. We need to take care of ourselves. We need to be able to release the negativity that is keeping us stuck. Our own lives need to be an expression of our own freedom and happiness.
Ahimsa without bhakti can wear us down. We will keep seeing separation. We will keep labeling right and wrong, perpetrator and victim. With the practice of bhakti, in acknowledging that there is something bigger than us, we can ask to be rid of anger, jealousy and fear. We can start to see that in an oppressive situation, the oppressor himself or herself is a victim too- a prisoner of his or her own ignorance, fear, and pain. And instead of anger, we start to feel compassion. It means that we continue to take action to eliminate violence, and we are motivated not by vengeance, but by selfless and unconditional love. As my teacher Sharon Gannon wrote as the title of March focus of the month essay: Bhakti Trumps All.