Can yoga change the world? Or is it just a fitness fad that sells a lot of brightly patterned tights? Some days I wonder. But then I watch something wonderful happening in a yoga room and know the answer is great big, unambiguous YES. Yoga can change the world. Here’s how.
This morning I walked into the cancer support facility at a large Sydney hospital. The women in the room were slightly nervous. Many of them hadn’t done yoga before and, given that yoga is often presented as a form of exercise for young, bendy people, they weren’t sure if they were going to be able to keep up. But, nevertheless, they’d turned up in the hope that yoga had something to offer them as they recovered from cancer.
Sitting on hospital-issue chairs, we started by focusing on the breath and then began some gentle movements: rolling the shoulders, flexing the wrists, raising and lowering the arms. The practice didn’t get a whole lot more active than that. We stood up at one point, but many of the students continued to use the back of the chair for support. Half the class kept their shoes on because they needed their orthotics in order to balance.
The class concluded with simple breathing exercises and a mindfulness practice. As they moved into meditation, the steady, present moment focus of every single participant was breath-taking. It was a profound and moving experience of deep engagement. I knew that something was important was happening.
At the end of the session, excited questions and feedback flowed without prompting:
“That was so different to what I thought it would be – where can I do more of it?”
“I felt so calm”
“Why isn’t there more yoga like this?”
“I didn’t think I’d be able to do it, but it was wonderful”
When yoga is received in the right way, at the right time, wonderful things can happen. It provides people with the skills to tap into their own inner resources and experience themselves in marvelous ways. The stories and circumstances that seem to limit their lives are transformed, creating new hope and possibilities.
This transformation is at the heart of yoga’s potential for positive change. It starts with small shifts in individual consciousness. The way we think and feel changes bit by bit, as yoga offers us new ways of experiencing ourselves. At first, these changes are all about our own individual concerns – we notice how yoga helps us feel better, supports healthy habits and facilitates growth. But as those changes are sustained, we discover that our relationships with others start to change for the better, too. As we learn to connect more deeply and honestly with ourselves, we also learn to experience more satisfying connections with others.
Through our deepening relationships, we come to recognize that our own wellbeing is intimately connected to nurturing and supporting others. Over time, that imperative to care for both ourselves and others extends beyond our immediate, personal relationships. We start to understand the broader web of interconnection that binds our own wellbeing to that of the global community.
One of the most important and joyful aspects of a sustained yoga practice is the flowering of this experience of universal interconnection. While me might have understood the theory that looking after the planet and helping others is a good thing, yoga offers a deep, visceral understanding that there is no difference between caring for oneself and caring for all living beings. Yoga helps us to know, love and care for ourselves. Through this experience, we learn that caring for others is the same as caring for ourselves.
Eventually, with continued practice, our actions start to change in ways that reflect our understanding of this interconnection. Bob Brown, former leader of the Australian Green Party, once said ‘Everyone who goes to the ballot box to vote for themselves has got it wrong.” He explained that we need to be voting not for ourselves, but for our grandchildren. Similarly, when we recognize our global interconnections, our day to day actions are guided by a wider sense of responsibility. When I recognize that the way I act affects many people other than myself, I start to look beyond my own immediate needs and consider how my actions can have the best possible impact on both myself and others.
From choosing retail products that support rather than exploit workers in developing countries, to putting your hand up to help a struggling neighbour, yoga teaches us take action in ways that care for others. That’s when we experience the full flowering of yoga – the word itself says it all. Yoga means ‘union’. This isn’t limited to the union of your own body, mind and spirit. As your practice develops, you become acutely aware of your ‘union’ with every body and everything else in the universe.
And that’s how yoga changes the world. One small personal transformation at a time, moving outwards into the world, changing perceptions, relationships and actions. Starting, perhaps, with a handful of women healing themselves with yoga in a community room at a cancer care facility.
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Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She conducts regular trainings that help people of all ages, shapes and abilities enjoy the benefits of yoga and meditation, including Meditation Facilitator Certificate Trainings; Level 1 200hr Teacher Training and Post Graduate Yoga Teacher Training in Mental Health, Adaptive Asana and the Foundations of Yoga Therapy and a highly regarded professional 650hr Graduate Certificate of Yoga Therapy.