The title of this post is inspired by a book called Men in Dark Times written by Hannah Arendt, a political philosopher whom I greatly admire. The book, which made a strong impression on me, consists of a series of essays about extraordinary individuals who did indeed live during "dark times" and what their reactions were.
The daily barrage of bad news accompanied by graphic images can be disorienting, leaving us feeling drained and paralyzed. Many students and friends say they’re overwhelmed and feel helpless and want to know whether yoga can be of use in today’s dark times.
The answer is an emphatic "yes!"
To begin with, yoga postures (asanas) help us to tone and relax our bodies. The more we are in tune with our bodies, the more our bodies will strengthen us to withstand the turmoil that besets this country and the world at large. Yogic breathing techniques (pranayama) and meditation re-center us, calm our nervous system, create feelings of wellbeing and deep relaxation, and help us regain our equilibrium.
Yoga also has many important and lesser-known dimensions that are particularly valuable in dark times. Practicing yoga will shift our perspectives, allowing us to fine our true purpose in life.
The yogic term for this is Svadharma. “Dharma” can be translated as “the order of the Cosmos.” Svadharma means one's own individual place in the cosmic order and specifically what activities in your own life are most in alignment with the universal Dharma.
This is difficult to discover intellectually. Most of us try to “figure it out” or vacillate, not knowing where we "really" belong or how we can participate in healing the suffering world. Yogic practices can put us in touch with our higher intuitive self, allowing us to discern our unique Svadharma.
Yogic postures help our bodies to become finely tuned instruments that enable us discover who we are and what draws us. The relaxation and centeredness that we gain from breathing and meditation enables to be more receptive to our inner wisdom and guidance.
As we deepen our practice, we begin to realize that each of us in our own unique way can bring light to the dark times in which we live. Some of us will participate in direct social/political activism while others may choose more individual acts of compassion. And a calm, compassionate presence brings healing to everyone you meet, regardless of what “formal” activities you’re involved with.
The more we learn about ourselves and our gifts and capacities, the less helpless and more empowered we are, allowing us to better navigate the dark times in which we live.
Recently, I turned 68, which got me thinking, yet again, about what yoga has to offer us as we get older. Certainly, many of yoga's benefits for the elderly have been widely documented: a greater sense of wellbeing, greater flexibility, a heightened sense of balance as well as others. New advantages of yoga for the elderly are constantly being demonstrated.
Yet for me, yoga provides something beyond the crucial benefits mentioned above. Here, we might note a difference between contemporary American and traditional Indian society. In America, older people are all too often considered expendable and, indeed, are often invisible.
America is a youth-oriented society and one of the greatest compliments to an older person seems to be, “Wow, I never would have guessed that you’re seventy, you look twenty years younger.” And the market is filled with “anti-aging” products from supplements to lotions and even surgeries designed to make the face or body look younger.
In addition, you may be struggling with watching technology gallop at a breakneck pace, with teenagers seamlessly whizzing though Internet or cellphone functions that you are still mastering. If you have retired, you may wonder about your purpose in life now that it is no longer structured by a job. And if you are like me, you may be watching some of your friends develop chronic or acute illnesses, or passing away, bringing not only sadness but also larger questions about mortality. Who are we? What happens when we die?
Does this really have to be a senior’s experience of aging?
As mentioned, in traditional Indian circles, aging is seen as a great opportunity: specifically, an opportunity to single-mindedly pursue spiritual goals and move towards union with the Ultimate Reality, whatever that means to each of us. In India, this is framed as being finished with the "householder" stage of life and now being free to devote ourselves to our spirituality, if we choose to. At this stage of life, yoga can provide spiritual meaning and a way to age gracefully and to expand our world.
Of course, there are other benefits to yoga as well. Yoga postures (asanas) can strengthen our bodies and mitigate many of the conditions associated with aging, such as osteoporosis, arthritis, and heart disease. Yogic breathing (pranayama) and meditation calm the nervous system, improve mood, and can also contribute to greater physical and emotional strength and vitality. In addition, breathing and meditation allow us to access higher states of consciousness, which can offer a new window into larger questions of mortality and meaning in life and afterward.
One of the most inspiring people in my life is my teacher, the yoga master Sri Dharma Mittra who, at age 79, still teaches and performs mind-boggling asanas, as well as other techniques of yoga designed to bring us to Self-Realization. There are many accounts of yogis who continue into a vigorous old age, strong in body and peaceful in emotion and spirit.
Yoga offers us an uplifting set of practices that allow us to both maintain our physical health and move into more expansive realms of consciousness and spirit, whatever our age or state of health.