By Katie Harpstrite, Kaiut teacher, Kansas USA
It’s been a tough few weeks for me to be an American. When Trump was elected president, I was astounded that my country could possibly elect someone so crass, self-serving, bigoted and arrogant, but I was not really prepared for how quickly he would wreak havoc across so many areas of our system. With news of each executive order, each new scandal, each blind grab for more power, I almost have to pretend like this isn’t reality. How can I possibly respond to having a leader with such a huge ego running out of control?
I traveled from my home in Kansas to Washington, D.C. on inauguration weekend to participate in the Women’s March on Washington. The march was held on the day after the inauguration, and on the day of the the inauguration, there were violent protesters who broke windows, threw rocks, and set trash cans on fire. They were controlled with tear gas, and 217 people were arrested. My family was nervous that the Women’s March was going to also get out of control. However, even though there were around half a million people at the Women’s March, and there were times I could hardly move or breathe, there was a happy, peaceful atmosphere throughout the crowd. There were chants, and yelling, and signs with a wide variety of messages, but everyone was polite and kind to each other, joyful to be part of the effort. I didn’t see a law enforcement officer until near the end of the march.
This experience got me thinking about the nature of protest. When a protest is angry and violent, it causes a violent reaction, and it rarely makes people not involved in the protest change their mind about an issue. However, when a protest is peaceful and organized, the reaction is more accepting, and more people’s hearts and minds identify with the message.
I’ve come to view my yoga practice as a peaceful protest. It’s a protest against entropy, age, negative physical and emotional patterns, ego, anything that is too sharp or too dull. There are clear messages, and the protest is persistent, but the action occurs from a state of calm. If the action is too violent, with too much pressure or speed, the body has a violent reaction, and that reaction may erase any good done by the effort.
One of the gifts of this practice is equanimity--the ability to be calm in the storm. When we sit with intense physical sensation (dare I say, “pain”), but with a calm nervous system, we build the ability to have space between the stimuli and our reaction. That ability allows us to go deeper into the pose, and to create more movement and more space in an intelligent manner. It also changes our mind, our ability to have space before reacting in our mental and emotional bodies. That ability follows us off of the mat and into our interactions and relationships, making us better friends, partners, parents--and even better activists.
At first, the nervous system may react to these sensations, and that reaction makes the work impossible. It’s important to learn to back off when you feel the nervous system go into overdrive--otherwise it may feel like being in a violent protest with tear gas. It takes time, and calm patterning to teach the nervous system how to accept the practice. It’s also very important to learn to find the perfect recipe, the perfect amount of pressure, to push yourself without violence. In order to find that in yourself, you have to understand the general character of your mind and body. I have a very strong mind, and my body can take a lot of pressure, but it is possible for me to push too hard and cause myself harm. For others, physical pain will stop them from harm. And for some, the mind won’t allow them to even begin the work of facing their pain and making change.
Trump is completely ignorant of his body and mind; he is ruled by fear, ego, and greed. His violent actions are going to be met by increasingly violent reactions. It is my hope that the insanity of his actions, combined with the increasing number of peaceful protests against them, will change the hearts and minds of the millions of Americans who voted for him out of their own fears.
There is so much work ahead, in my practice, in my country, in our world. But if we can face those tasks with awareness, calm, the right amount of effort, intelligence, and even joy, our peaceful, persistent protest will result in long-term positive change. Resist fear and assist love!