One way of thinking of karma yoga (the yoga of action) is as the skillful use of bodily postures and gestures to pierce through the ego, and its illusions. But we often mistakenly assume that the ego is only personal. In fact, as angel Kyodo williams, a Black Zen priest has written, we are all burdened by both a personal ego and the social ego. The social ego is what gives identity to a community and to a society. The social ego hides in the value judgments, the rules for access and recognition, the tastes and the prejudices that make a community cohere. Race is doing its work at the level of the social ego even when we may not be enacting “racism” at the level of the personal ego.
The social ego is the social atmosphere. We are oddly fortunate in this time, I think, to see the racial mindset of the American social ego expressing itself so overtly. The deepest patterns of the ego continue to re-assert themselves until they are recognized and reckoned with. And it is up to us, especially in this time, to connect our practice of yoga as a way of counteracting the personal ego, with the practice of yoga as a way of counteracting the social ego. Only once this connection is made can we use our yoga practice to address the self-destructive illusions about "the self" and "the racial other" that permeate our everyday life.
We all have different kinds of work to do in the yogic practices of reckoning with the social ego depending on our own histories and experiences. For example, I teach a class for People of Color, and I teach workshops focused on exploring how yoga practice disrupts the patterns of race that imprint themselves on our bodies, our minds, and our communities. I use poetry and music drawn especially from the Black American repertoire to point towards the presence of the racial social ego in our midst, and to acknowledge the ghost of race that continues to haunt us. I also use discussion sessions and guided interpersonal sharing activities in order to bring our lived social context into the yoga room.
Yoga, for me, is like poetry, music, and art. It is a way of skillfully rearranging what seems so familiar to us – the body in the case of yoga, words in the case of poetry – in order to uncover what is hidden in plain sight. Yoga, like other arts, helps us see more clearly. It is through the arts, including the art of yoga, that we develop the capacity to witness difficult things that otherwise are repressed and hidden away. Yoga helps us develop an awareness of how the social ego works so that we look at it straight in the eye, so to speak. For me, this is the key link between yoga and social justice.
Instead of a retreat from the world, the intentional practice of the postures and gestures of yoga refines our sensibilities, opens our eyes (and ears and senses!), and allows us to find the space needed to reckon with racism at the level of the social ego, and with the historical amnesia, the fears, the aversions and the avarice on which it feeds. These are just some reasons why yoga is action.