Lessons in resistance at a former yoga ashram

There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.
— Leonard Cohen

I’m writing these words from a yoga center in the snow-covered Berkshires, in an atmosphere of extreme serenity that is both deeply comforting and somewhat intimidating. On the second day of my little retreat, during a silent meditation walk in the snowy woods, the woman leading the group had us stop at a particularly idyllic spot and stand still, listening to the quiet. Tree branches creaked gently in the wind, a stream of water bubbled over rocks, a woodpecker tapped on a tree, and someone (it might have been me) struggled to control her jagged breathing (it was a steep climb!). Gazing up at the treetops, the instructor asked us to describe what we heard during the silent walk. Reader, I was honest: during the meditation walk, all I could hear was the cacophony in my head — and it sounded like a super highway at rush hour. 

Most of us walk around with a head full of noisy thoughts. Meditation is supposed to help quiet the mind, but sitting still (or walking in deliberate silence) while thinking about nothing is incredibly difficult. Still, I don’t think I am alone in feeling that the normal roar inside my head has become much louder and shriller in recent months. When I mentioned to a friend, a journalist who covers the Christian and white nationalist right in the United States, that I was feeling overwhelmed by an unending stream of worried thoughts, she said, without missing a beat: “It’s the fascism.”

For those of us who are concerned about the state of civil society and democracy, 2019 was a disquieting year. Authoritarianism continues to rise and spread, while once robust democracies falter as the pillars of supporting institutions — the judiciary, the independent media, and the legislative branch — are weakened. Around the United States, in New Zealand and in Europe, we have seen a notable uptick in violent racist and antisemitic incidents. Perhaps most worrying of all, governments continue to dither over the climate crisis, even as scientists issue dire warnings about the consequences of a failure to implement policy changes. 

The news is so bad, and the sense of hopelessness so pervasive, that there’s a constant temptation to withdraw and focus inward rather than fight back. This is especially true when the exigencies of daily life — working, raising children, worrying about money, and trying to find a little time for oneself — are so all consuming. Where do people who don’t have any experience of struggling for their rights, because they took them for granted, find the inner resources to fight back? 

The story of this yoga retreat center provides some insight and inspiration on the matter of fighting for what is important. For many years, it was an ashram led by a guru. His devotees and disciples lived on the property in a communal lifestyle that involved providing a lot of free labor, from teaching yoga classes to cooking meals and cleaning rooms for paying guests. In return, the devotees received all the emotional benefits of being part of a nurturing, close-knit, spiritual community. In the mid-1990s, however, the guru was discovered to have “abused his power” — i.e., preyed sexually on some of the devotees. For the community, this was a devastating betrayal. Many had lived at the ashram for years; they had taken on new names bestowed by the guru; their friends, community, and identity were all tied up with the ashram and its spiritual leader.

Twenty-five years later, the ashram is a thriving, non-profit educational center, which provides a nurturing, peaceful place for people who need some time to take care of their bodies and their spirits. 

The center provides scholarships to grassroots community leaders interested in learning how to broker and teach non-violent conflict resolution in challenging environments, and to people who want to use yoga as a means of enriching their professional practice — as healthcare providers, teachers, or corporate wellness consultants. The people who clean and cook are no longer volunteer religious devotees, but staff who are paid and treated well — many of them refugees, or people who live with physical or intellectual limitations. The instructors have stripped the yoga classes of Sanskrit chanting, except for the occasional “om” or “namaste.” Instead, they emphasize that yoga is a science and a practice that promotes physical well being, but not a religion. Slowly, some of the disillusioned devotees who moved away after the guru’s betrayal are drifting back to spend time at the ashram-turned-yoga center. They’ve reconnected with old friends, and rejoined a changed community. 

Nothing about this trajectory was obvious in 1994, shortly after the guru was exposed and ousted. I remember, because I happened to visit at the time and saw how crushed and unmoored the devotees were. They could easily have closed up shop and dispersed into a fog of bitterness and loneliness, but they decided that the place had too much to give and teach, and that it must be salvaged. And so they set to work, and after a few years they realized that they hadn’t needed a guru, after all.

I am inspired by people who are willing to face and overcome emotional devastation.

Over the past year, as I mourned the decline of democracy and civil society and tried to fight my way through the spiritual malaise that is caused by fear and a perception of helplessness, I saw some thought provoking inspiration around the world. 

In a Moscow courtroom, a 21 year-old university student named Yegor Zhukov was tried for “extremism,” after he was arrested for posting YouTube videos in which he extolled the virtues of nonviolent protest, criticized Vladimir Putin, and discussed his campaign for a seat on the Moscow City Council. Masha Gessen translated the moving and powerful speech Zhukov gave at his court hearing, after which he was sentenced to only three years of probation. In Putin’s repressive Russia, this was a surprisingly light sentence. The explanation, Gessen writes, lies in Zhukov’s speech, the response it elicited from the public — and the fact that several Russian media outlets “dared” to publish it.

Globally, the number of grassroots movements challenging corrupt and/or authoritarian governments with sustained protests is breathtaking. In Chile, protestors have faced down police using live ammunition and mass arrests as they continue to protest the social and economic inequality in their country. In Lebanon and Iraq, protestors have joined forces across sectarian lines to challenge the corrupt and ineffective governing systems in their countries. In Hong Kong, the sustained pro-democracy demonstrations are entering their eighth month. The Chinese government issued dire threats and even indicated it was prepared to intervene militarily, but has so far done nothing. 

In India, just this week, a stunning number of ordinary citizens flooded the streets of major cities to protest the controversial new citizenship act that discriminates against Muslims. 

And last October, just steps from my home in Montreal, an estimated 500,000 people gathered to cheer for Greta Thunberg, the 16 year-old Swedish girl who single handedly inspired a global movement to raise awareness of the climate crisis. 

The power of authoritarians can and must be challenged. The temptation to check out and turn inward must be fought. Giving up is not an option. 

I think I’ll adopt those thoughts as my meditation mantras. Meanwhile, The Conversationalist will continue to publish insightful, knowledgeable, thought provoking articles about the urgent issues that we all care about so deeply. I don’t know if 2020 will be better than 2019, but let’s get ready to meet its challenges.