Portrait of a Yogi
"A Rabbit Noticed My Condition"
I was sad one day and went for a walk;
I sat in a field.
A rabbit noticed my condition and came near.
It often does not take more than that to help at times—
just to be close to creatures who are so full of knowing,
so full of love
that they don’t
they just gaze with
-St John of the Cross
As we practice yoga, many of us start developing an idea of what we think the “perfect yogi” should be. We think of her as always peaceful, always relaxed. She never gets angry, and all conflicts are so far in her past they just barely wisp behind her as lessons well learned, never to return.
I am nothing like that. Nor do I want to be.
The other day, a man who frequently catcalls me in my neighbourhood was sitting in a cafe while I was getting coffee for myself and a friend. He gave me the old once-over, again. I looked him in the eye and (actually) said, “You got a problem? Something you want to say?” He mumbled “No” and turned back to his coffee. My friend who saw this exchange happen said to me, “That wasn’t very yogic of you!” That wasn’t the first time someone has said that to me this year, either.
I think sometimes we get the impression that being “yogic” actually means stoically ignoring any uncomfortable emotions we have and refusing to respond to them, let alone stand up for ourselves. We’ve labeled anger, fear, grief, and frustration as “negative” and have learned, mostly through our fast-food Facebook philosophy, that we should never feel anything but calm equanimity, even when facing a threat to our personal safety.
If one feels they are advanced in these yogic teachings and wishes to test this Spock-like emotional ability, they might try spending the holidays with their family.
Yoga is many things to many people, and it has changed in many different ways for different cultures, philosophies, and environments. It’s changing now as it incarnates in the modern Western world; we are shaping it next to our neuroses, and it is shaping us in ways we are still trying to understand.
A friend of mine was doing a mentorship with a teacher recently who preached the ultimate virtues of a vegan diet, for example. One must try to be as much like the ancient sages as possible, his reasoning went. Two of these sages, I’m assuming, include David Life and Sharon Gannon, the founders of Jivamukti yoga, whose treatises on the virtues of vegan living were written in the early 2000s in light of the epidemic of factory farming in our culture.
My friend agrees absolutely that factory farming is bad, but in recent years, at least in our city, ethically raised milk and meat is much more available that it was even five years ago, and a vegan diet absolutely requires the expensive import of foodstuffs that don’t grow here where we live and can’t support the local farmers that do have ethical practices. Where we live, it’s incredibly challenging to be a healthy vegan and eat local. Making decisions to eat ethically is much more complicated that just following rules someone else wrote in another city in another time, even if it was just a few years ago.
Yoga—the way I see it, anyway—is not about obedience and silencing emotion. Quite the opposite: yoga encourages a deep and honest sensitivity, and the courage to make a decision you know in your gut to be the right one regardless of what others think. The real work of yoga—or any form of self-exploration—is unavoidably uncomfortable. Perhaps it would be easy to maintain an attitude of calm equanimity living in the Himalayan mountains where there would be no kids screaming at you, no sexual predators on your mountain, and no need to negotiate trying to share your cave with another human being who piles his loincloths rather than folding them neatly.
In Buddhism, there is a concept called the “second arrow.” From the Samyutta Nikaya, a Buddhist text:
It is as if a man is hit by one arrow, but not by a second arrow; he feels the pain of one arrow only. So it is with the well-trained disciple; when touched by a painful bodily feeling, he feels but one feeling, bodily pain only.
The idea is that suffering is real and inevitable: life can be challenging, and pain will happen, both physical and emotional. The second arrow is the moment when we blame ourselves for having the pain in the first place, when we feel shame for being “negative” or resist speaking up for ourselves because it might cause discomfort in both ourselves and another, however necessary that might be. We are the bearers of the second arrow.
Yoga is about awareness, not shame or trying to meet some ideal of what you think you are supposed to be. Our work is to be honest, to admit when we make mistakes (and we are going to make mistakes) and do our best to learn, not only from the texts and ancient gurus but also from our cave-mates and their unfolded loincloths.
So the next time you get mad at yourself for being frustrated, angry, or upset—the next time you start feeling bad for feeling bad—remove that second arrow and let the first one rest. See what that discomfort is trying to tell you, and take the time to make a choice about how you want to react to the catcaller in your coffee shop, the vegan diet proponent, or the loincloth folder. Make a choice, and don’t be afraid to make a mistake, either. Be like St. John’s rabbit for your own self: don’t ‘chat’, just gaze with your marvelous understanding. What happens next, hopefully, will be a mindful choice, rather than a habitual or fear-based reaction.