Peace-loving, vegan yogis and gun-toting, alt-right crusaders don't have much in common at first glance. But here's the weird thing. They're all sharing the same COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Whether it's 5G mind control, Bill Gates and vaccinations or suspicions about official coronavirus mortality figures, the flower children and the hard right are united in their love of YouTube videos telling them to 'wake up' and smell the global conspiracy.
Because they are all human. They are all afraid. And we are ALL struggling to manage our minds and emotions right now.
The enormous problems and uncertainties we are facing today seem uniquely modern, symptoms of a high-tech globalised world. But humans have been staring down cataclysmic world events since we evolved. War, plague, catastrophic weather events. And how have we responded? Well, that depends on your perspective.
Are you a witch hunter or a yogi?
When faced with scary events that leave us feeling helpless and out of control, humans often respond in one of two ways: fear or growth (sometimes both!)
The fear option
Familiar to anybody who watched the first season of Blackadder, the middle ages is a great illustration of the fear response. The hundred years war killed nearly 3 million people in Europe (out of a population of around 70 million). The black death killed nearly HALF of the population. People were frightened and confused. Their response? Witch hunts.
Thanks to modern technology (the printing press was invented right in the middle of all this) 'facts' about the evil conspiracy of witches were published in pamphlets that were as eagerly shared as Facebook posts. Up to 60,000 witches, mostly women over the age of 40, were executed.
Unsurprisingly, witch hunts did not stop the plague.
The growth option
Familiar to anybody who's done a course in yoga, the concept of growth through managing the mind deserves a little attention right now.
Yogis will know about Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, a 2,000 year old text that forms the basis of modern yoga. The great sage Patanjali explains that the cause of our suffering is the way the mind responds to sensory input - what you see, hear, feel etc.
When we are frightened or overwhelmed, we act out. Those actions cause suffering to ourselves and others. Patanjali advises us to take a long, hard look at our own thoughts and behaviours. He also gives us a whole world of mind-managing tools to help us develop greater clarity and perspective.
The goal of yoga, Patanjali explains, is to practice managing the mind's fluctuations until we can let go of all the stories, contradictions, fears and desires that drive us to act out.
The question is, do you want to be a witch-hunter or a yogi?
As we rush to get our yoga classes up online, let's remember why we teach yoga in the first place. Yoga is a practice designed to help us manage the mind. Is your yoga practice helping you do that?
I know how hard it is to manage the mind. I wrestle with my own demons every day. I'm afraid for my family, my income, my community. I don't have all the answers. But I let Patanjali be my guide.
Patanjali's Eight Limbs of COVID-19
Because the world is asking so much from us at the moment, I'm keeping this super simple. I'm focusing on just one of Patanjali's Eight Limbs of yoga - the first one. The Yamas.
1. Ahimsa - non harming
Ahimsa means that you don't do anything to harm others. You may think a Facebook post promoting scepticism about COVID-19 lock-down is 'thought provoking'. But if enough people believe lock-down is part of a conspiracy rather than a science based public health intervention, they will stop following the guidelines and infection rates will increase. That means more deaths.
2. Satya - truth
Is the content you are promoting true? Yogis are big hearted people who often go on gut instinct. But gut instinct can be wrong. Ask the witches.
Epidemiology and concepts such as the exponential growth of viral infections are hard to wrap our heads around. Facts can seem counter-intuitive.
Check every piece of information before you share it. Did it come from a reliable source (such as public health data or peer-reviewed studies?) Or did it come from an alt-right website or troll factory? Know who's ideas and interests you are promoting.
3. Asteya - non-stealing
Sharing unproven theories and speculation online creates a climate of fear and distrust. You are, in effect, stealing people's peace of mind. I know why you're doing it. You are struggling to manage your own peace of mind and sharing your fears on social media is a coping strategy. It's a way of reaching out to others when you feel scared and confused. But it makes you, and the people who see it, feel more agitated and unsure.
Reaching out to others when you're scared and confused is a good thing. Let's do more of it! But do it in a way that elevates the community. Check in with friends and family to let them know you care. Share your gratitude for the people that are doing work in difficult circumstances, like health workers.
4. Brahmacharya - restraint
Brahmacharya refers to sexual restraint, but the word itself means behaving in a way that is consistent with Brahman - God, or the universal consciousness. The idea is that practicing sexual restraint frees up focus and energy for the journey towards self actualisation. Basically, don't chuck your energy away by being a slave to your basic urges. Apply that principle to consuming and sharing an endless cycle of conjecture and unproven theories and you'll have a lot more energy to focus on supporting your community in ways that make a positive difference.
5. Aparigraha - non grasping
Aparigraha is about letting go of possessive control. It recognises that the desire to hold on to things fills us with anxiety. When we are chasing and grasping at ideas and theories to help us explain things we cannot control, we increase our levels of anxiety. Patanjali would tell us to get off social media and focus attention on the processes of our own minds.
Acknowledge and process wisely
It's OK to feel scared, angry and worried. But process those feelings in ways that support your wellbeing and elevate those around you. When you share your fear and feelings of helplessness with your online community, you spread a virus more powerful than corona. Doubt, fear and despair spread like wildfire.
Think about what it means to be a yogi, rather than a witch-hunter. Consider how, like Patanjali, we can work to manage our own minds and support our students to do the same. That, after all, is the exact definition of a yoga teacher.