Yoga for Peace
6 | 20 | 16
by Dominic Inouye
What can we do when we're so far away?
We are over 1,200 miles away from Orlando. On 6 | 12 | 16, one man took the lives of 49 others and injured 53 others--then his life was taken by the police officers called to the scene. 50 dead people.
What can one do from so far away?
My friend Tonieh Welland called me with an idea. But the idea didn't gel right away because she was racked with the uncomfortable anxiety that is a mixture of anger and dread, sadness and helplessness. What could she do from so far away? What should she do? What should the rest of us do? How were "We are Orlando" posts and "Our prayers are with you" sentiments going to change anything? How could contacting politicians change anything--especially in the here and now--when the political process seems so impotent on gun control. And even with further gun control, how could that bring back the 50 dead people (or the 44 shooting victims in Milwaukee or the horrific number of 1,819 shooting victims in Chicago in the past six months alone)? Her tone was less judgmental and more frustrated, more dubious even, perhaps of her own intentions and actions (or inactions) in the past. So we changed our Facebook photo to a rainbow or an Eiffel Tower. So I sent my love and prayers. So I sent money to a victims fund. So what? Now what? I don't think Tonieh is alone. But what else can we do?
As I began writing this, I was reminded of Søren Kierkegaard's cliffside of dizzying freedom and Camus' Sisyphus. Venturing into my basement, I successfully retrieved my Philosophy 203 notebook. Not only were Kierkegaard and Camus tabbed in my notebook, but Baudelaire, Camus, Levinas, Heidegger, Tillich, and Sartre, philosophers who wrestled with the absurdity of their age. As a college sophomore, I never imagined I'd revisit this notebook after the "worst mass shooting in American history" (if we discount the Wounded Knee Massacre), if at all. And if 49, 44, and 1,819 are not absurdity enough to call in Kierkegaard and Camus, what would be?
According to my notes, Kierkegaard imagined a man standing on the edge of a cliff, possessed simultaneously with fear of falling that kept him from getting too close and a strange impulse to throw himself into the abyss. He has two choices--and that possibility scared Kierkegaard: we have the freedom to choose either. In my notes, I had drawn the "dizzying crest" with a man on the edge, with three "defiance" arrows pointing away from the cliffside, labeled "passion," "freedom," and "revolt."
But what makes sense to me now is the idea of being available in active ways to each other even when the world seems out of control. And not to forget about Camus' imagining of a mythical Sisyphus who realized that at the top of the hill he was, if even for a moment, stronger than the rock, king of the hill, master of his own condition, despite what had been fated him. Camus called his Myth of Sisyphus "a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert." So add living and creating to faith, hope, and love, and perhaps we have an answer to the question that began this article.
But what good, even, is philosophy? Especially without action? Isn't it easy to see the rest of the world as "out of control" at the same time we're texting away our minutes and sipping coffee after a morning workout with friends?
What became of my conversation with Tonieh was some imperfect clarity: she and her fellow yoga instructor Larry Bickert would offer a yoga and meditation circle on the summer solstice. I don't think it was lost on either of us that one could say the exact same thing about a yoga and meditation circle on the summer solstice as one could say about FB rainbows or virtual or spoken prayers. But again, what can one do from so far away?
Her original intention for the summer solstice was to celebrate the change of seasons with 108 sun salutations (surya namaskar), offering yoga instruction with a suggested donation to help fundraise for her traveling yoga business: mats, blocks, and the like. However, the weight of Orlando was weighing too heavily on her; it felt selfish to ask people for donations that would benefit her when there were more pressing issues in the world. If we were going to do 108 of anything and raise money for it, it would be for our local LGBT Center. Her mats could wait.
On the longest day of the year, then, Tonieh and Larry invited the community to join them at O'Donnell Park in downtown Milwaukee, at the grass circle next to Mark Di Suvero's orange sculpture, "The Calling," otherwise known as "The Sunburst." Both the original name and the colloquial name seemed significant, plus the park was sure to draw visitors on what would be a very hot first day of summer.
Almost 40 people--including one woman who was jogging past us but stopped to join, another man who was biking past, and later a young student from Marquette who said he came down to the park every day to meditate anyway--formed a perfect circle in the middle of the park. Despite the construction and traffic noise, we spent the next 90 minutes moving through 108 surya namaskar, with nine cycles each of sun salutations A, B, and C, then a rest and meditation, then a repeat of this process three more times, for a total of 108.
Why 108? That's harder to explain. But here are a handful of interpretations (thank you, Google):
9 times 12: Both of these numbers have been said to have spiritual significance in many traditions. 9 times 12 is 108. Also, 1 plus 8 equals 9. That 9 times 12 equals 108.
Harshad number: 108 is a Harshad number, which is an integer divisible by the sum of its digits (harshad is from Sanskrit, and means "great joy")
Heart Chakra: The chakras are the intersections of energy lines, and there are said to be a total of 108 energy lines converging to form the heart chakra. One of them, sushumna, leads to the crown chakra, and is said to be the path to self-realization.
Sanskrit alphabet: There are 54 letters in the Sanskrit alphabet. Each has masculine and feminine, shiva and shakti. 54 times 2 is 108.
Pranayama: If one is able to be so calm in meditation as to have only 108 breaths in a day, enlightenment will come.
Upanishads: Some say there are 108 Upanishads, texts of the wisdom of the ancient sages.
Pentagon: The angle formed by two adjacent lines in a pentagon equals 108 degrees.
Sun and Earth: The diameter of the Sun is 108 times the diameter of the Earth. The distance from the Sun to the Earth is 108 times the diameter of the Sun.
Moon and Earth: The average distance of the Moon from the Earth is 108 times the diameter of the Moon.
There are too many interpretations to list, but I chose to treat the number neither as spiritual nor as daunting, even though most who attended had never done 108 in a row before, including me. Instead, as I told Tonieh, I saw it as a challenge that would take intention, focus, and discipline. If what we were doing was going to be vigorous and detoxifying, if what we were doing was going to help each of us set personal and collective goals to work toward peace, then we should have to work for it. And if our bodies didn't allow certain poses or the full 108, then we were encouraged to do 108 of something, whether it was another pose or another intention or an encouraging word to our companions to the left and right.
What can we do from so far away? I think our bodies were telling us what we could do. And so were our minds. Larry led us through five guided metta (which translates as "loving kindness") meditations to punctuate our movement and breathing. We offered up traditional intentions of loving kindness:
"May I be safe."
"May I be happy."
"May I be healthy."
"May I live with ease and peace of mind."
Each time we meditated, we directed these intentions, these energies, toward a different person or group of people:
A loved one.
Our community and world.
As the sun slowly dipped behind the buildings, our arms kept raising above our heads to salute the sun in hasta uttanasana, stretching our abdomens and chests open, and lowering our palms in prana masana to our heart centers. By the time we were done, the sky had painted the clouds in warm, soothing oranges and pinks.
Reflecting on our yoga mala (literally a "garland of yoga") from home later that evening, Tonieh wrote online: "After all the hatred we've seen divide our nation and world, let's all open our hearts to the possibility of loving kindness toward all beings and see what unfolds. May all beings be safe. May all beings be happy. May all beings be free of suffering." She also informed participants that they had helped raise $330 that would be donated to the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center.
John, the passer-by on the bike, loved that the yoga mala represented "peace and love." He added, "Maybe people in the world need to do more things like this, coming together with random people instead of being on the Internet all the time."
Katie, who came with her uncle Michael, loved the "challenge" of the 108 salutations. "Usually my yoga classes have been about holding positions for a period of time, but this was more like go, go, go," she remarked. The constant flow between positions was certainly disciplined yet meditative, yet Katie added that she also loved all the "smiling and music." Smiling never hurt anyone, did it?
And finally, Martin, who works at the LGBT Center, found it incredibly "centering" to have just returned the previous day from China and "feel like [he is] back in Milwaukee now, right in the center of it." Most of all, of course, this evening was meaningful to him because of his work at the Center and the difference it would make.
There is an Urdu-Hindi word, bebas (be- "without" + bas "control"), which translates to "one without control," as in someone who can't, or feels like they can't, "do anything to change what is happening." For 90-minutes, however, I feel like we had control--and choice, like Kierkegaard's cliff-hanger or Camus' rock-pusher. Control over our bodies and minds and hearts. Control over how we would treat ourselves and each other. Control over the choices we would make later that evening and in the future, in Milwaukee and wherever we went. A choice to do so with passion, freedom, and revolt.
Whether the absurd is on our front porch--or even far away.
I don't claim to understand fully what Kierkegaard (or my notes about him) meant by these terms, but I choose to see them as alternative choices to leaping, to giving up in the face of immense absurdity. We can choose to live with passion, freedom, and even revolt against the absurd; each is a positive action that requires strength and integrity and hard work. A few pages later, I wrote this: "The absurd man must be available to the present and to others, even with the horizon of death. There is indeed something within me that is incommunicable to myself--love, faith, hope . . ." I don't remember if this was a note about Kierkegaard or a personal reflection (in college I was definitely a religious believer in fides, spes, et caritas, and now I'm a secular believer in the same three things).