One of the drawbacks about being a yogi blogger is that I get regular exposure to some of the most tasteless and depressing aspects of yoga in Western culture (and y’all know what I’m talking about, because I can’t stop myself from commenting on it). Crass commercialism, hypersexualization, narcissism, branding… it’s enough to sometimes make me wonder why I bother with this practice.
Which is why I’m so grateful for Yoga for a World Out of Balance: Teachings on Ethics and Social Action (Shambala Publications, 2009). The latest book by Michael Stone, a Toronto-based yoga teacher, psychotherapist and author, puts to rest my unease about current developments of yoga and assures me that it’s a practice that is not only worthwhile, but essential for modern life.
“The aim of yoga is not perfect mastery over technique or the ability to memorize scriptures,” writes Michael. “But rather the activity of bringing one’s insights into the world through action… yoga occurs when our inner work manifests in the world around us.” The book subtly provides a system for how we can do this in our everyday lives.
Michael explores how yoga can be relevant to culture, ecology and politics, and he does this through the lense of the five yamas, or “external restraints.” The yamas are the first limb on the ashtanga (eight-limbed) path of yoga, as outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. These five restraints are generally known as guidelines for how we relate to the external world, and Michael clearly defines the yamas as “the clarification of one’s relationship to the human and non-human world.”
Each of the five yamas – ahimsa (non-harming), satya (honesty), asteya (not stealing), brahmacarya (wise use of sexual energy), aparigraha (not being acquisitive) – warrants a chapter unto itself, wherein Michael illustrates the complexity of each through real world examples. Ahimsa, for example, opens a reflection on the hanging of Saddam Hussein, and satya explores the nature of personal and collective consumption.
As he explains, “The purpose of the yamas is to articulate actions that render a life that is flexible, sensitive and responsible. The yamas are most necessary when we are in relationship with other people, animals and earth.”
Michael’s writing style is clear and readable; he breaks down sophisticated yogic concepts and demonstrates their applicability and relevance to life in the twenty-first century. His use of language is deft and skillful, and he writes without being heavy-handed, alarmist or didactic. He also successfully avoids jargon, flakiness and hyperbole, offering instead a consistent narrative sparkling with gems of wisdom, many of which read almost like sutras in themselves.
“It’s not just reflection that the spiritual person must cultivate,” he writes. “But also the response to the insights arrived at through reflection and the deep commitment to take our practice out into the world. The world is calling out for people like you.”
And the world has been calling out for a book like this. Yoga for a World Out of Balance is a reminder to breathe, practice, feel, reflect ~ and then act. It tells us how to look at the world, reflect on your response to it, and then go do something about it. This book affirms the potential of yoga in our world, and is necessary reading for anyone who is looking to do an engaged, authentic practice with integrity, intelligence and sensitivity.