I was taking my final exam to qualify as a yoga teacher from the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala, South India. The exam was more or less straightforward, with the exception of one question: “What is the highest yoga?”
The highest yoga? I thought to myself. Well, what are my options? There’s bhakti yoga (yoga of devotion), karma yoga (yoga of selfless service), jnana yoga (yoga of knowledge) and raja yoga (yoga of science)… It’s probably karma yoga, I guessed. The spiritual teachers always emphasize how service is the beginning and the end of the spiritual journey. I thought all the yogas are equal, though! What is this, some kind of trick question?!
After some thought, the answer emerged. It was, in fact, posted on the front entrance of the ashram that had struck me upon entering four weeks earlier. “Bear Insult, Bear Injury, Highest Sadhana [spiritual practice]. Bear Insult, Bear Injury, Highest Yoga.”
Bear insult. Bear injury. This expression easily invokes an image of Jesus Christ strapped to a cross at the time of his death. Which makes it feel somehow unattainable. Rather than being a sacrificial practice of martyrs, however, I believe the meaning of this wisdom is best cultivated through the practice and development of patience and compassion in circumstances that are most personally challenging. It is the difficult practice of forgiveness. We no longer have to seek out spiritual teachers, or travel far to be with them, because in this way, we embrace people who challenge us the most as our greatest guides to enlightenment.
For example, many people would not believe that incarcerated youth in juvenile halls (prisons) could be spiritual teachers. They, in fact, can be. Just the other day, I led a mindfulness/meditation class in San Mateo Juvenile Hall with a group of incarcerated teenage boys, something I do every week through the Mind Body Awareness (MBA) Project. There are many labels society places on this group of people: Delinquents. Good-for-nothings. Threats to society. Criminals. Rascals. Failures. Spiritual teacher is generally not one of them.
What I see in my classes, however, challenges these popular notions. Many of the youth express how difficult it can be to withstand the insults and injuries of the hall guards.
The subject of the abuses of prison guards has been made well-known by Stanford University’s famous prison experiment, in which everyday people were made into pretend prisoners and guards in a makeshift prison in Stanford’s psychology building basement. The guards were only told that they could not strike the prisoners. As the days of the experiment went on, the guards became increasingly aggressive, using humiliating and dehumanizing tactics against the prisoners, to the extent that an outside observer could not distinguish it from a real prison environment.
A documentary film called Quiet Rage graphically illustrates how:
“Exposure to a jail or prison environment for even a few hours is toxic for the human psyche. It is not the conditions of confinement that lead to pathological behavior by prisoners, guards and other staff members, but the confinement itself.”
Violence of all kinds occurs inside the iron gates of prisons worldwide, with juvenile halls being no exception. Arson, rape, bribery, assault and weapon possession are common problems in all jails, amongst prisoners and guards alike.
The guards at San Mateo Juvenile hall often interrupt our class, calling out loudly for the youth to get their medicines and to leave the room as soon as our class sessions conclude. They blast the radio loudly outside our room and often question why we even bother to try teaching meditation to this group of “losers.”
The fact that I feel challenged by the guards during the very short period of time I have to interact with them every week makes me imagine just how difficult it must be for the youth to have to put up with them day in and day out.
“I was talking to my mom on the phone and the guard just comes and cuts off our conversation, saying I had a 30 second time limit on my phone call and then laughing at me in front of all the other inmates!” exclaimed one youth.
“They treat us like we’re some sort of animals,” expressed another.
Upon further investigation, I learned that one guard in particular actually has charges against him for physical and sexual abuse and harassment of the juvenile hall inmates. He often bribes youth to keep their mouths shut after incidents of abuse, enticing them with anything from candy to special meals to promises to help them get out of the hall that rarely actualize.
One of the topics of discussion in our curriculum is forgiveness. Forgiveness is hard enough for ordinary people. This group, however, has to face the unusual challenge of forgiving opposing gang members who have purposely taken the lives of some of their closest friends and family members. Forgiving parents and caretakers for abandoning them physically and emotionally when they were young. Forgiving police officers for beating them. Forgiving guards for failing to protect them.
We therefore simply present forgiveness as an option that does not condone the actions of the person has injured us. Rather, we share with our students how forgiveness is a choice that, if practiced consistently enough, can free them – and all of us – from the feelings of hatred, anger and revenge that internally incarcerate far more people than are actually behind bars.
The normal, primal reaction to insult and injury is, of course, to simply injure and insult the perpetrator back. Yet, Denmark, another youth in my group, expressed the sentiments of ‘the highest yoga’ that day when he shared how he
“tries to imagine what the guard is going through himself when he yells and abuses us. I try to put myself in his shoes and can sense that he suffers a lot himself if he puts us through so much torture. I try not to add to his suffering by adding insult to his injuries.”
Denmark’s powerful statements reminded me of a Chinese fortune cookie I received years ago when I was confronted with the choice of how to respond to insult and injury in my own life:
“One who hurts another hurts himself the most.”
Denmark continued to talk about how he was able to transform his anger into compassion and empathy through meditation practice and how much easier this has made his time in juvenile hall.
“Not reacting to my impulses gives me choices and the power to decide how I’m going to spend my time up in here.”
Indeed, one of the greatest benefits of meditation practice for me has been this freedom to choose how I act and react to circumstances in my life. This juvenile hall experience is one of many that have made me come to regard my students as true spiritual teachers, in the midst of tapas (the heat of the fire that is the work of spiritual transmutation and true transformation). I continually find myself inspired and amazed at the tenacity and compassion of these young people, who have seen and experienced so much in their lives.
A spiritual figure who embodies the highest yoga in her social transformation work is Ammachi. Guided by the same sort of forgiveness and compassion that enables Denmark to see himself in the eyes of his guard, Ammachi (Kerala, India’s famous “hugging saint”) has led many women to empower themselves in a patriarchal society without the anger that has marked the modern women’s rights movement. I have written more about her in another blog entry.
On a smaller, but important, level, I often have yoga students set an intention at the beginning of class by visualizing a person they are angry with at peace. Forgiveness, after all, is first and foremost, a gift we give to ourselves, to free ourselves from the inner prisons of anger, hatred and fear.
Rather than condoning the actions of those who insult us, forgiveness heals and empowers us from within, enabling us to express ‘the highest yoga’ in a very practical way, each and every day.