Updated: Dec 6, 2017
The genocide and enslavement of people of African descent is one of the most significant moments in black history, even as slavery remains a part of our present lives in various ways (the prison industrial complex, human trafficking, systemic racism).
The pain, stress, trauma, anger, grief and sadness of both historical and modern day enslavement has left an indelible mark on the souls of black and brown folks. These emotions, inherited from our ancestors and adapted to fit modern times, have lead to habits, be they physical actions or mental patterns, that upset our balance and undermined our health and wellness.
In the practice of yoga, this accumulation of past thoughts and actions is samskara, a kind of residue that builds up inside us and influences how we think and behave at present and in the future. Eating food that lacks nutritional value, inflicting violence on people in our families and communities, abusing substances — the descendants of enslaved people have collected countless habits and patterns that keep us from feeling free.
The emotional toll we've paid for having our bodies and minds commodified through slavery has left us spiritually bankrupt, making choices and defaulting to behaviors that compromise the integrity of our souls and societies. And yet, our future must be focused on finding our freedom, of breaking free from the bondage of unhealthy habits.
Yoga is a powerful tool for liberating ourselves from unwanted, ingrained patterns. Through it, we identify, acknowledge and progressively change them. — BKS Iyengar
Looking back at the legacies of our ancestors and the many trails they blazed to light the paths we journey towards our liberation, we can begin to understand how our ancestors' approaches to activism are powerful models for how to we can reclaim our freedom through community organizing.
Perhaps the most profound example of collective and individual activism for freedom is the Underground Railroad, a system of codes, locations and people that guided ancestors escaping enslavement to places in and out of America where slavery was outlawed. Many elements of this pre-technology era GPS system align with the values and practices of yoga, an art and science whose primary aim is to unite the Self with the Divine in order to experience moksa (liberation).
The Underground Railroad is a useful metaphor for how we can use yoga to develop new systems to communicate with and support each other as we navigate uncharted and unsafe territory towards sacred spaces where our health and humanity is affirmed.
The journey towards liberation started for many enslaved people by realizing the ways they weren't free, and noticing how enslavement affected what they believed and how they thought and acted.
Sometimes this revelation occurred through education — either self-initiated or through the support of others who were learned and literate. Reading and writing, and continuing to covertly practice and share African traditions through music, movement and spirituality, was a form of svadhyaya, a yogic principle that encourages us to know ourselves through reflection and teach ourselves what we need to know to initiate positive personal and community change.
Engaging in svadhyaya unveils the illusions and ignorance we hold that create the habits that influence our lives. And while it can be easy to think that unlearning our unhealthy habits is the best way to free ourselves from those self-imposed prisons, like our ancestors, it's more important that we channel our energy away from poor habits and toward ways of being that enrich us.
You have to steal back yourself. You have to steal back your own mind. Meditation helps in that area. Meditation is like the cloak of the good thief. You find a corner or somewhere where you can actually entertain your own self and your own soul, and understand what your work [is] here. — Alice Walker
Realizing the injustice of their enslavement, they ran, taking their bodies and minds back from the captors to experience life outside of the barriers and belief systems created to capitalize off of their personal and collective power and intellect.
As more and more ancestors determined to take their freedom into their own hands, whether through uprisings or great escapes, the Underground Railroad emerged and was expanded and sustained by a network of people who forged physical tracks that supported a train of thought that transported our people to places where freedom reigned.
There are many parallels between the means that those who participated in the Underground Railroad system used to liberate themselves and others and the path of the yogi, who in their practice of mind/body movement and commitment to embodying essential spiritual principles share a common goal with our ancestors: self-liberation.
They created an intention for their journey, and maintained a vision for their movement.
For the yogi, the first step we must take to forge ahead on the path to freedom is developing a sankalpa, a resolve to use our energy and consciousness to transform some aspect of ourselves and our worlds. Our intention guides our approach for achieving our goals to create change that encourages Union and ultimately, liberation.
The yogic compass always returns to the notion of emancipation. The yogic goal is freedom. — BKS Iyengar
Those who secreted their bodies away from enslavers never forgot how real the threat of capture and death was, and many never made it to their final geographic destination. But each life lost, whether taken back to the plantation or going home to be with the Lord, was a lesson for those who remained on how to better navigate this often grueling physical, mental and spiritual journey, and undoubtedly strengthened their resolve to find freedom for both themselves and those who would never experience it in their lifetime.
Understanding our intentions helps us create a clear and unwavering vision for how to stay focused on our goals. Holding a vision for the change you strive to create is an important aspect of a yogi's practice. On a physical level, where a yogi directs their gaze during their asana, pranayama or meditation practice determines where their attention will lie.
As they navigated through nature in the dark of night, the stars would often light their way; stories of escape commonly describe how ancestors used the North Star and the celestial body referred to as The Big Dipper (known to escapees as The Drinking Gourd) as a focal point to both remind them of and guide them to their destination.
Our dristi, or focused gaze, helps us channel energy in the form of awareness to points in our minds and bodies. When we can manage the flow of our energy, we can direct it toward creating the healing we need to experience union. In addition to using an outward gaze to direct our awareness to an external object, yogis also use techniques like trataka (gazing at a candle) or yantra meditation (gazing at a sacred symbol) to focus and direct intention and energy inward.
For our ancestors, the North Star became a sacred symbol that kept their internal and external eyes trained on a Higher Power, an energy that would liberate them. Their capacity to see the light of freedom despite the darkness of escape, and to let that light guide them is useful to yoga practitioners.
The energy of the ajna chakra, the sixth of seven energy centers that when united help us to experience union with the Divine, encompasses the idea that we must see from a perspective or point of view that is aligned with that of the Creator. Focusing our attention at the third eye, the area on the forehead in between the eyebrows, we experience the energy of ajna chakra as we begin to see envision ways we can embody the wisdom and intellect of the Divine to achieve our intention.
We can hold our personal and collective visions for the change we want to empower and experience by writing our goals down so we can see them, creating vision boards with imagery reminiscent of our goals, meditating on a common image, idea or energy, or holding storytelling circles where we discuss issues and experiences in our lives and communities we want to bring attention to and focus our awareness on.
They developed and followed a code of conduct and communication.
Everything about the Underground Railroad was secretive and covert; if efforts to escape were exposed, it put the lives of any and everyone involved at risk. So those endeavoring to escape developed a way to talk about and stay the course to freedom that would protect them and propel them past danger and into the Promised Land.
Railroading terms described the people and places that were a part of the network. Individuals who helped lead ancestors to their freedom were "conductors", while the travelers were "passengers", "cargo" or "packages"; safe havens where escapees could hide, rest or receive nourishment were "stations" or "depots", and "stationmasters" and "stockholders" sustained rest stops and used their money or goods to ensure safe transport of the cargo.
Similarly, yoga uses sanskrit, the spiritual language we use to describe poses and practices, and the principle of ashtanga (the eight limbs) as a means for practitioners to safely and steadily walk the path toward self-determination. Sanskrit uses the sacred power of sound to create words and phrases that define different aspects of our spiritual journeys. Each letter has a vibration that resonates in the body when spoken or thought, invoking relaxation and opening energy channels in order to unite us with higher levels of consciousness.
In our ancestors' ancient societies, griots (storytellers) were gurus who taught us about our ethnic and cultural heritage and practices. Yoga likewise is an oral tradition, where teachers and students use the common language of sanskrit to create and explain the concepts within which we must live in order to experience deliverance.
The eight limbs of yoga are branches of a tree rooted in the idea that morals, ethics, philosophies and practices can prepare us physically, mentally and emotionally to sustain the sense of union that ultimately liberates our spirits.
The yamas and the niyamas are two branches of this tree. Practicing these principles offers us a concrete way to develop the skills to manage our emotional, mental and physical energy for a Divine purpose. The niyamas are observances, personal practices that cleanse and charge our inner bodies and deepen our connection to the Divine within ourselves; the yamas are restraints, ways to regulate our relationship to others and encourage harmony and union in our outer world.
On the Underground Railroad, participants were clear that not following the established code of conduct could compromise the integrity of present and future escapes for emancipation. Yoga also offers us a set of words and directives that usher us along a sometimes perilous trek toward salvation, a guide for how to advance along the path to freedom with fortitude and integrity.
They established safe havens where they could restore their energy to be able to endure the rest of their exodus.
Stations — some outdoors hidden off the beaten path, others in the homes or businesses of trusted stationmasters — were critical places of respite for the weary fugitive travelers.
There, they could relax, even if only briefly, in a safe space and in the company of people just as committed to their freedom as they were. They could eat, sleep, and receive resources like clothes and food that would carry them through the next leg of their journey. If they could do so without the threat of discovery, they would sing songs, dance, tell stories, pray, and enact other rituals individually or collectively to maintain their connection to themselves, each other and their God despite the physical, mental and spiritual exhaustion of escape.
Satsang is a sanskrit term for a group of individuals who gather to explore spiritual truth, using sacred texts, dialogue and meditation to understand Divine law and use that understanding to illuminate one's pilgrimage for sovereignty.
Sacred spaces like yoga classes, prayer circles, and spiritual study groups create a community where people of like mind can create and hold a vision for the inner and outer worlds they wish to inhabit. As we make moves to emancipate ourselves from physical and mental slavery, it's crucial that we gather together to revive and restore our spiritual energy and renew our commitment to the quest for freedom.
They used nature as their guide, their food, their home and their healing.
Before, during and after enslavement, our ancestors had an intimate relationship with the land they lived in and were forced to work on. They understood their environment and the organic cycles of nature by spending time outdoors throughout various seasons and weather. They knew how to find and grow plant medicine and food, to use fresh water from sky, river and sea to cleanse themselves and their belongings, and to relate to animals as trusted companions, important helpmates or delicious food.
It was this intimate knowledge of the Earth that sustained them enhanced their capacity to travel through woods, forests and other outdoor landscapes toward their freedom. Elements of nature with a distinct look or in particular locations became guideposts, milestone markers pointing them down the right path. Mother Earth was their protector, helping them to hide themselves and provisions in hovels, caves, pits and bodies of water. When food was low or gone, they partook of seeds, nuts, fruits and other edibles, relying on a plant-based diet for the nourishment they would need to continue their voyage.
One of the fundamental relationships explored through the practice of yoga is between ourselves and nature. Through yoga and Ayurveda, seekers explore how to harness and balance the forces of nature both within and outside of themselves to better understand how physical energies and metaphysical powers (mental, emotional, spiritual) unite to create and sustain all of life on Earth.
In order to enhance opportunities to experience inner and outer Union, yoga was traditionally practiced in nature, with communities of teachers and students retreating to mountains and forests to worship and practice in ashrams, monasteries and temples and to learn from nature through gardening, farming and other forms of stewarding the land.
In the years after slavery was abolished, many of the descendants of the ancestors who ran for their freedom came to settle in urban areas, migrating from rural country sides blossoming with natural life to inner city concrete jungles often devoid of nature.
Now, it's become clear that the nature-less conditions and widespread pollution that comes with city life has compromised the health of our environment, often leading to epidemic diseases and social crisis among the people and animals of the Earth. Think dirt brown water pouring from faucets in Flint, an asthma-ridden adolescent gripping their inhaler, gasping for their next breath, chemical waste poisoning the soil of small towns, creating sharp spikes in cancer-related death.
Yoga offers us a way to stay connected with our environment so that we will come to relate to it in a healthy way, seeking to find Union with it instead of simply using it for our own gain, or ignoring it all together.
Practicing poses and conscious breathing, we shape our bodies and minds in the form of many elements of nature, be it a mountain (tadasana), the ocean (ujjayi pranayama) or a snake (bhujangasana), connecting to the energy of the nature around us to catalyze the flow of natural energy within us. Using the science of Ayurveda to diagnose disease and apply natural, plant-based remedies to initiate healing reunites us with the environment that we call home.
They decentralized leadership and financed their own freedom.
Though it has been challenging for historians to estimate exactly how many enslaved people made use of the different aspects of the Underground Railroad, it's clear that one of the strengths of this informal, loosely organized system of support for those running away from enslavement was that no one individual or organization was responsible for leading the process of coordinating and completing these freedom flights.
Rather, anyone dedicated to the abolition of enslaved Africans who demonstrated their commitment through some level of participation in the network was a leader in this movement for emancipation. Often, ancestors who had freed their minds or bodies from the bondage of their captors were leaders who would eventually encourage and/or guide others toward their own freedom.
There were those who came back to plantations to help loved ones or brothers and sisters in spirit get free, folks who housed and offered provisions for those on the journey, and people in the Promised Land who would help the newly unchained understand and integrate into the environment and society a new town or city.
Your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. — Toni Morrison
Our freedom movements become more effective the more every one of us gets to know ourselves. When we use yoga to study and master our bodies, minds and emotions, we can uncover unique skills and a divine purpose we can use in service to the vision we hold for how we want to improve our lives and communities.
As we enhance our abilities to create balance and Union in ourselves, we will naturally encourage those around us to do the same. We may even feel called to work more closely with people and our environment to transform the unjust and imbalanced habits and conditions that hold us captive.
A movement with many leaders rather than one is often more easily sustained than one dependent on a single person or group: we can avoid the burnout that has been a hallmark of much of movements, and direct the focus away from highly visible individuals and institutions to keep their voices from being targeted and suppressed.
As has often been said, freedom for our ancestors was not free. Supplies and resources like food, clothes and transportation fare came at a cost, and having such goods or cash could mean the difference between making it to a state where they could experience sovereignty and being recaptured or killed.
Free people often donated such resources, and over time, many conductors and stationmasters formed what were called "vigilance committees" to solicit and contribute funds to pay for items escapees needed for their journey or to support them in their resettlement once they had reached their destination.
Investing in our independence with our time, energy and money continues to be one of the most important ways we can ensure that the struggle for freedom will continue. Using our income, benefits, resources, revenue, earnings and other forms of currency to finance our movements empowers our efforts to imagine and implement communities where good health for all is a priority, relationships are sacred, and freedom is both a feeling and a reality.
Like our ancestors who rode the freedom train, we can educate ourselves and each other, then begin building an intention for our lives and envisioning the a way to make good on our resolve. By developing, learning and practicing codes of conduct and communication, we can build and maintain organized systems for freeing ourselves of the unhealthy habits and conditions that keep us physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually enslaved.
As everyone steps up to lead with their strengths and skills, investing their spiritual currency into our movements, we can break the chains of injustice and progress down the path to spiritual and social liberation.