Living Yoga: Yoga and Activism

[Published in Australian Yoga Journal, May 2014]

Sea Shepherd

“How can you be a yogi and an activist?” asked a fellow Sea Shepherd crew member on the bridge of the organisation’s long-range vessel, the Bob Barker.

I had been pondering this question for the previous three months at sea. We had been patrolling the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary protecting whales from Japanese whalers who aim to kill 1035 Minke, Fin and Humpbacks every Antarctic summer.

Yoga teaches us to master equanimity, to see the divine in all things. But this is no easy feat when face to face with the violence inflicted upon the Great Whales of the Southern Ocean and the destruction wrought on this beautiful and wild place by human greed.

As a Jivamukti Yoga Teacher, I don’t see activism as anomalous with yoga – in fact, quite the opposite. The method’s founders, New York natives, Sharon Gannon and David Life, emphasize Jivamukti as a path to enlightenment through compassion for all beings. Joining Sea Shepherd was a way for me to very actively tread this path of compassion. A common prayer in the Jivamukti method is ‘lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu’. This prayer translates as ‘May all beings everywhere be happy and free and may the thoughts words and actions of my life contribute in some way to that happiness and freedom for all’. In this way, joining Sea Shepherd is a large part of my yoga practice.

The challenging part is keeping anger at bay, even as we go up against an opponent intent on murder and destruction. Over the course of Operation Relentless, the name given to Sea Shepherd’s latest anti-whaling campaign, the whalers were very aggressive toward our ships and crew. After hours battling the whaling fleet’s harpoon ships, I would feel angry, frustrated and defeated.

Sea Shepherd’s goal in the Southern Ocean each summer is to secure the slipway of the whaling fleet’s floating abattoir, the Nisshin Maru, in a sort of high seas sit-in. This prevents the harpoon ships from offloading their kills, meaning the harpoon ships can’t whale.

Three times we found ourselves in tense and prolonged skirmishes with the whaling fleet as the harpoon ships trailed hundreds of metres of steel cable off their sterns and repeatedly crossed our bow. Their goal was to force us to loop around in circles so the factory ship could get away. The strategy worked as we were forced to evade the cables to avoid damage to our rudder and propeller.

Before we left Australia for the Southern Ocean I was teaching regular yoga classes to the crew of all three Sea Shepherd ships at our home base in Melbourne. I would encourage the crew to offer up their backbends to the whalers, wishing them liberation so that they stop causing suffering in the world. Anger isn’t a requirement of activism, and in many cases, we can be more effective if we can resolve those negative feelings. The question for me isn’t how can I be a yogi and an activist but, how can I act from a place of love instead of anger? I try to remember why I am here. I am here out of love for the whales, for the oceans and for the planet.

In the mantra lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu, there are no exceptions. The prayer is for all beings. Not allbeings except the ones who kill whales. I’m far from resolving my negative feelings toward the whalers but that just means I clearly have more backbends to do.