What is the Connection Between Yoga and Social Justice?


“There is no yoga without justice. There is no peace without yoga. No justice, no peace.”

- Susanna Barkataki, Embrace Yoga’s Roots


We’ve started 2021 and, as much as we might have wished, it’s certainly no asana in the park. Rather than a peaceful practice, so far it’s been a full on political, social, personal moment - even boiling to a breaking point.


With all that is happening in this time, you may be wondering, what’s the connection between yoga and social justice?


  1. There is no yoga without justice.


We sat in a circle, the golden earth shimmering in the heat, like rings of light radiating out from our small group. Our teacher, the revolutionary and humble yogi Shankarji, was teaching Vedantic philosophy, the Jnana or wisdom practice of yoga, to a number of villagers and me. I was teaching in Bihar, India, in a small village not far from where my father attended school. Like him, the villagers gathered around were living in huts made of clay, earth and mud, held together with lime and dreams. Also like my father, they wanted more. They wanted a taste of freedom. Shankarji freely taught the practice of liberation to all of us, regardless of caste, class, nationality or even personality. He shared the expansive teachings of yoga freely for all.

The very foundation of what it means to be a yoga practitioner begins with the yamas, the ethical precepts. Of the 5 precepts, the first is ahimsa, or non-harm. As a yoga practitioner, we commit to practicing Ahimsa for ourselves, and also for others. What it means to be a yoga practitioner is to devote one's sovereign life to ensuring others have the ability to do the same. This is what Shankarji did in that village. This is what many practitioners of yoga have done, and still do, all around the world.


Yoga, after all, means union. And the deeper, philosophical teachings of yoga show us how we are not separate from one another. Our small self - unites with the greater capital ‘S’ Self. In fact, there is no separation between us and anything else. Thus, what it means to practice yoga is to show up, stand up, speak up for justice. For everyone else has the right to the samadhi, or freedom and liberation, that yoga offers. This is built into the very first (ahimsa) and last folds (samadhi) of the Eight Fold path of practice. This is the practice of yoga I was tasked with - to ensure that wherever I went, in whatever part of the world I found myself, I would bring the practice of yoga to those who could benefit most.


  1. There is no peace without yoga.


Resting on my mat in balasana, child’s pose, tears streamed down my cheeks. Plopping, like wet round, wild blueberries on the purple yoga mat beneath my prone form. Not tears of sadness, but tears of homecoming, as the blueberry droplets mingled with the mat and earth below, releasing my insecurities and fears as they fell. “I am finally home,” I felt. “I am here. Right here. And I’m in my body. Not running away. I’m alive. I’m present.”

How many of us have had moments of arrival at times or even newfound understandings of peace because of the practices of yoga? Certainly, most of the moments of maturity, growth, presence, love, joy, humor, I can remember over the last two decades, I owe to the peace that this practice has offered me. And I mean the full expanse of yoga, the lifestyle, ethics, meditation. All of it. Before I practiced so diligently, I certainly didn’t have as much peace. I’ve truly found, as the Bhagavad Gita shares, there is no peace without yoga.


In the Bhagavad Gita 2.66, Krishna says:

nasti buddhir ayuktasya

na cayuktasya bhavana

na cabhavayatah santir

asantasya kutah sukham”

Translation:

One who is not in transcendental consciousness can have neither a controlled mind nor steady intelligence, without which there is no possibility of peace. And how can there be any happiness without peace?

The aim and purpose of yoga practice is to cultivate peace.


  1. No justice, no peace.

In 1977, Pan-African Rasta and revolutionary Peter Tosh wrote “Equal Rights,” coining the slogan and phrase that activists worldwide chant in the streets to this day.

“Everyone is crying out for peace

None is crying out for justice

I don't want no peace

I man want equal rights and justice . . ."


And often performed this song live with the lines:


"But there will be no peace

Until man has equal rights and justice."


As someone who has marched, from the cool cobblestone alleys of London to the hot, thick streets of Los Angeles, Dehradun or Delhi, as a peacekeeper along with thousands of other protesters against white supremacist war, or against discriminatory policies against immigrants, or the imposition of monocropping on farmers, or the rounding up and targeting of Muslims, I profoundly have witnessed the sentiment of “No justice, No peace” as a universal one.

In my bones and soul. It rings for me as a conditional statement - we need justice, to feel peace. And as a promise. We won't stop speaking, writing, interrupting, disrupting, until justice is served.

Whether the phrase is meant conditionally, (i.e. if no justice, then no peace) or conjunctively (i.e. if there is no justice and no peace), it's clear that many feel their peace is dependent upon justice being served. Or that without justice, they will not remain calm, but protest until justice is delivered or created.

Under British Colonization, when nonviolent Indian freedom fighters threw off the oppression of the British, they were practicing yogic tools of swaraj, self-rule. Yoga is a path of sovereignty. And this sovereignty is personal and political. These practices of self-rule influenced MLK Jr., and the civil rights methods of SNCC - the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the US. And even have touched seeds into today’s most critical civil rights movement: Black Lives Matter. Yoga is a practice, everywhere.


Yoga, Social Justice and You, Right Now


So here we are. What is your connection with yoga and social justice? Perhaps it’s a practice that liberates you from body shame, or internalized oppression. That gives you more passion and hope. Truly, yoga is a path and practice that prepares us for protest. That equips us with the power to stand up, speak up, to march. To do all these things with peace as well as passion in our hearts.

Many people associate yoga with a peaceful practice, that will calm them down after a stressful workday, or help them be a better producer or consumer in capitalist society. Yet, the aim of yoga is far more revolutionary and daring.

It is to liberate a person, a people, from their own bondage. And in that liberation, to ignite a revolution of the heart and soul that is so compelling that everyone else comes along for the practice. In this time of false news, anti-science, group-think, conspiracy theories and white supremacy, yoga’s full expression as a practice of liberation is needed more than ever as a clear pathway forward.

Thus, we see that a true, full practice of yoga is deeply rooted in and committed to social justice.


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I’m hosting a free Yoga and Social Justice Leadership Challenge and you’re invited!

Over 3 days for 30 minutes a day, from January 26 - 28th, 2021, join me to explore yoga as a vehicle for personal and social justice. Together we will build a roadmap for conscious yoga leadership for social change. Deepen your practice and bring it alive with yoga philosophy for equity.


  • DAY 1: AHIMSA - Yoga's connection to social justice & cultivating leadership practices that TRULY support.

  • DAY 2: SATYA - Right now, live a life founded on satya, truth, and yogic values to CREATE MORE EQUITY and lead authentically.

  • DAY 3: TAPAS - Create a SUCCESSFUL PATH to powerful yogic leadership.

Sign up here to create your roadmap for yoga as social justice in this Free Challenge https://embraceyogasroots.com/socialjusticechallenge/. You can join me live or catch the recordings.


“There is no yoga without justice. There is no peace without yoga. No justice, no peace.”

- Susanna Barkataki, Embrace Yoga’s Roots


References:

  • Barkataki, Susanna, 2020. Embrace Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice. Ignite Yoga and Wellness Institute.

  • Jain, Andrea R. 2015. Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Telesur English Magazine

  • Bhagavad Gita As it Is, Retrieved online from https://asitis.com/2/66.html

  • Language Log Resource. Retrieved online from https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=5249

  • De Michelis, Elizabeth. 2004. A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism. London and New York: Continuum.

  • John A. Grimes, A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy: Sanskrit Terms Defined in English, State University of New York Press, ISBN 978-0791430675, page 238.

  • Mike Burley (2012). Classical Samkhya and Yoga - An Indian Metaphysics of Experience, Routledge, ISBN 978-0415648875, pages 43-46.

  • Kovoor T. Behanan (2002). Yoga: Its Scientific Basis, Dover, ISBN 978-0486417929, pages 56-58.

Gerald Larson (2011). Classical Sāṃkhya: An Interpretation of Its History and Meaning, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN978-8120805033, pages 67-70.

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"Let's work together to realize yoga as unity and make yoga fully inclusive and diverse."
- Susanna Barkataki

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