The Roots of Greed

After living and teaching yoga in LA for 10+ years, I  am going to make my first trip to City Hall tomorrow. Uber-yogi Seane Corn’s Off the Mat project has organized a coming together of yoga teachers and practitioners to show solidarity with the Occupy movement. I am going to be there doing whatever I can to help. A big reason that I want to contribute is that, from the start, Seane has made it clear that the focus will be about what we are for- not what we are against.

Since I heard from Seane about this last week, I have been trying to square the Occupy mission with the system of yoga philosophy that I try to live my life by. I, like many, have found the movement to be exciting but diffuse in its message. I love the hyper-democratic way that it has grown without leaders but to really throw my support behind it, I need to know what it’s about in a way that makes sense. I feel like I’ve got it now and, once again, I found the answers in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali that have become for me both a guidebook that shows me where to point my energy and a scrapbook that gives a vocabulary to where my yoga mat has taken my life.

Although it manifests in hundreds of seemingly disparate demands for specific changes to the US  financial system, the thing that Occupiers are rallying against is greed. I agree with Seane that what we as yogis can bring to the conversation is more about what we are for than what we are against. But, to get to the positive, it helps to look at the source of that greed that leaves so many people in need while a few have much more than they’ll ever need.

Simply, Patanjali defines yoga practices as any effort that makes the mind still enough to see who we really are. Part of the human condition- the part that can only lead to pain, is that we are blinded by the things around us and that we can’t see our true, divine and blissful nature. This is avidya -- lack of vision. We forget who we are.

Life in the Dark!
Creative Commons License photo credit: VinothChandar

Because we need some kind of identity, we start to make things up. We create a new self-image.  We attach to the material instead of to the spiritual. Then we divide the world up into the things that support our manmade ego self and the things that don’t support it. Finally, Patanjali says that because we all know that this material self will die with the body- we live in fear of the inevitable end to bodily life that is so beautifully articulated by Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita. All together, these are what Patanjali called the kleshas- the obstacles that are created by and rooted in the disease of avidya- ignorance of true self.

Similarly, Patanjali’s lists the yamas, the five human traits that we learn to tame through yoga and whose taming symbiotically helps us move into awareness of yoga. The yamas are about things that humans have to do a little of to stay alive. Like it or not, it’s human nature to cause harm, to be dishonest, to steal, to waste energy and to be greedy. All of these are forms of harming. They are all kinds of himsa. What I find fascinating and instructive, and what is so current with regard to the Occupy movement and what we as yogis can lend to it, is the source of the harm. It’s the same thing that blocks our path to happiness- avidya. Lack of clear vision.

When we forget that we are divine and blissful beings, it becomes easy to hurt ourselves and each other.

This is where all of the many voices of the Occupy movement share common ground. We see that we, as a society, have forgotten who we are. America grew strong by conceiving new ideas, making new things and selling them to each other and the world. Somewhere along the way the things themselves came to define us on a societal level and on an individual level and we forgot about our own perfect souls. We’ve all been complicit in creating a world that glorifies consumption and over-achievement to the detriment of our own well-being.

This is where yogis can help. I’ve been privileged to experience and witness what yoga practice does. Along with so many other benefits, yoga opens eyes. It restores vision to clarity.  Before I practiced, I was a misanthrope. I needed people, but I didn’t love them. I had no problem with causing harm or being greedy. And I know now that the reason for all that was because I didn’t know who I was. When yoga showed me the way to my self, it instantly showed me the hearts of fellow humans as well. That’s when the ability to easily hurt others started to weaken. That’s when I started to care more about people and less about things.

Love story
Creative Commons License photo credit: Atilla1000

My experience is that all you need is a few little glimpses of what lies at the human heart to learn to dissolve attachment to things and to start to direct your resources to the places where they are needed. So, if avidya – lack of clear vision — is at the root of harm, fear and greed; then clarity is the source of healing and love.

Yogis these days often get caught up in telling everybody else to just be nice. You may have noticed that it doesn’t work. Before I tried yoga, believe me, plenty of people told me to be nice. It did nothing but annoy me. They went onto my list of things  to avoid.

Instead of finger-pointing, name-calling and preaching, what we can do as a community is to show people what happens when we really look at each other and at our selves. We open our eyes and we see each other. What yogis know is that when you really see what we are all made of- you just get nicer. The greed is replaced by generosity. Where there was harm, there is help. “Me” and “I” become “Us” and “We”.

The Occupiers are shouting at us. They’re saying that the world is suffering from a tyrannical occupation of the human heart that has its seeds in blindness and mistaken identity. They see that greed has its roots in ignorance.  With yoga, we end the reign of greed and fear and make room to welcome back the refugee kindness as the true inheritor of the non-property that is the human soul

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Maybe taking a look at our own attitude toward acquiring will help us find some common ground with the so-called 1%. One-hundred percent of us have these issues. It’s not about us and them. It’s about us.

When I need clarity, I very often find it on my mat. Lately I’ve been able to see in my own approach to asana that there are times that I get greedy. I know it’s not what I want so when I see it I stop. The result has been a much more even (and blissful) thread of practice — instead of one that is a list of acquisitions of poses.

I am curious to hear from other asana practitioners about if and how their practice has taught them about the difference between healthy acquisition and greed. While you can’t live or practice without taking something, do you ever catch yourself crossing the line and becoming greedy? If you do, can that awareness educate you about the source of the societal manifestation of greed?


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James is founder of YogaPoser, a yoga studio and teacher training program he created to make the deeper benefits of yoga asana practice more accessible to the modern practitioner. Renowned for developing creative and challenging content for top yoga studios and fitness centers around the globe (including YogaWorks, Equinox Fitness and YogaGlo) and for shaping personalized practices for private clientele, James began teaching yoga in Washington D.C. in 1996, and in 1999 became the first Adjunct Professor of Yoga at American University. From 2001 until 2009, he taught at YogaWorks’ Santa Monica studio, where he was a key contributor to the first highly regarded YogaWorks Teacher Trainer’s Guide. James has also authored a wide range of television, DVD and digital content, including the YogaPoser iTunes Podcast (ranked as one of the most popular yoga podcasts on iTunes), and YogaWorks Body Slim on DVD and Exercise TV. He has been featured on NPR, in Rolling Stone Magazine, W Magazine, The Washington Post and more.

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