Where Yoga and Activism Merge


Photo by Marianna Baldo
Photo by Marianna Baldo

Sea Shepherd, Operation Relentless, January 20

When many people hear the word yoga they think of a form of exercise; however what is known as the asana practice is only a very small part of a rich and varied tradition. Sailing on the High Seas with Sea Shepherd is a form of yoga practice too.

As a modern yoga teacher I do primarily teach asana and indeed the method of Yoga I call home, Jivamukti, has a strong asana component. However, the method’s founders, New York natives, Sharon Gannon and David Life, emphasize Jivamukti as a path to enlightenment through compassion for all beings. Coming from this tradition, it makes perfect sense to join Sea Shepherd and intervene to protect the giant Buddhas of the sea, the Great Whales, from a painful, violent and prolonged death. There is much in yogic philosophy that can be of use to anyone involved in activism. Here are some yogic teachings I have brought with me to the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary:

Our actions make our world

“The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.” – Gandhi

Humanity’s collective karma has resulted in a planet in need of more heroes. Our individual actions matter and as much as we have the power to destroy we have the power to conserve and protect. Many people project the responsibility for taking action onto someone else. One reason I love Sea Shepherd so much is the organisation has never left it up to others or trailed behind the slow-moving beast that is government, which is shackled by self-interest and diplomacy. Sea Shepherd does what needs to be done, enforcing conservation laws and protecting ocean wildlife and wild places.

The cosmos operates on sacrifice

“The very cycle of life emanates from sacrifice. All living creatures are nourished and sustained by food; food is nourished and sustained by rain; rain emanates from nature, freely given.” – Bhagavad Gita III.15

A few years ago I attended a spiritual activism workshop, held by one of my yoga teachers. We were asked to write down on a piece of paper what our particular cause was that we cared most about. The teacher then asked us to write down what we were willing to sacrifice for it. This really helped me to see that my actions at the time weren’t really in accordance with the seriousness of humanity’s destruction of the natural world. Nor were they reflective of how much I cared about the issue. I resolved to do more and I realised it was within my power to help heal the only home we have, even if only a little bit. Offering up our actions in line with the concept of sacrifice – not asking for anything in return – connects us more fully with nature and her laws.

Act from a place of love

“Like a caring mother, holding and guarding the life of her only child, so with a boundless heart hold yourself and all beings. Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is an ancient and eternal law.” – The Buddha

Traditionally humans view their relationship with the Earth as one of a child, being nourished by the all-sacrificing, all-providing mother planet. Recently as a curious Minke Whale circled the ship, popping up to say hi and checking us out, I really started to feel a fierce protectiveness over this being. The whalers intend on murdering around 935 of her kind and she is in real danger of being killed. Yoga teachings often ask us to flip our perception of the world around us. How different would the world be if we held all of nature and her creatures in our hearts as a mother would their only child instead of, as a child, asking for everything but giving nothing?

Here in the wild Southern Ocean we are engaged in a battle. However, this battle has a difference – it’s a battle for less suffering in the world. It’s a battle against murder and man’s destructiveness. We want everyone to come out of this battle alive. We don’t hold to the speciesist idea that human life is more valuable than all else and we will protect the lives of the Southern Ocean’s Whales as if they were our own. I am here out of love for the oceans, for the planet and all living beings.

Everyone has the potential for an awakened heart

Compassion is a process of expansion. The word compassion means “to feel with.” In Buddhism there is the idea of “Bodhicitta,” or the awakened heart.  We start with feeling compassion for our nearest and dearest. However, the real practice comes in continuously expanding that circle of compassion until it becomes unconditional – then our heart has fully awakened. It’s important to remember that even the whalers, who callously kill for profit, have the potential to tap into that feeling of love for their friends and families and begin that process of expansion.

Everyone has the potential to evolve and begin the process of waking up. Australia turned from a whaling nation into a nation of whale lovers. The Bob Barker has transformed from a whaling vessel into a conservation vessel. And it’s important we reflect on where we are putting up those barriers too. We might start by caring for the magnificent Whales – then perhaps we can expand that circle to include those with fur, four legs, hooves and paws, scales and wings. Can we include even the exceptions that are so easily made – for example, the humans we see engaged in harmful and destructive violence? The practice is in finding the walls and putting cracks in them until they crumble. I’m not sure how I will react when face-to-face with the violence of the whalers, and probably my first response will be to harden. However, if I can only achieve a small dent in that hard place it’s a start. We all start where we are.