• Marsha’s Dharma: Yoga and Social Justice

    Marsha P. Johnson was a drag queen who climbed a light post and changed the world. When she stood before a judge and was questioned about her gender, she answered blithely that the ‘P’ stood for “Pay it no mind.’

    Born in a time where the language didn’t make space for choice of pronouns or gender that diverged from the binary, she was a crusader for acceptance.It’s arguable that much of the progress we enjoy today can be traced back to those nights in 1969 when she and her friends rioted for gay liberation.

    I’m so grateful for Marsha P. She is an icon, a spiritual figurehead and in that sense, mother to a new way of being in the world. She is the Patron Saint of Being Fed Up with The World’s Bullshit. Her legacy is my self love. My self acceptance is due to the yoga that she did in the world, maybe without even knowing it. Because of her and her Stonewall compatriots, I have the ability to be out. To be proud. To do yoga intentionally.

    Pride is political.

    Yoga is political.

    Those with the luxury to say otherwise are out of touch with the reality of life on Earth. The fact is that the power structures at play are designed to keep people in their place and change comes only in equal measure to the will of the people to protest the status quo. The progress that has been made for inclusivity in our society did not come easily. Women threw stones through Parliament windows as they sought the right to vote. African Americans refused to move to the back of the bus, an act of rebellion that often left them bloodied. At Stonewall TLGBQ threw punches and set fires that said enough is enough.

    Yoga is absolutely an internal practice that helps individuals find their own healing, but inner peace that bypasses the struggle for universal equality is just an illusion. Compassion for the self that falls into this trap of ignoring the suffering of others easily transforms into self centeredness. A more whole compassion says, ‘May WE be happy,’ not only ‘May I be happy.’ Informed with this awareness, the yogi in training should take action…

    Yoga most certainly has a political point of view. One of the moral imperatives built into our practice is Ahimsa, the willingness to seek a path towards non harming. This component of yoga does not imply passivity at all, rather it demands the hard work of digging up the roots of violence.

    Ahimsa is one of the first virtues defined in the Yoga Sutras, and as such the path of the yogi should include deep contemplation of the concept. The classical texts ask us to cause no injury in deed, word or thought. This direction should not be taken as a simple commandment however. We must critically evaluate the actions of others, especially those who enjoy privilege over a minority.

    When powerful and corrupt political and societal factions leverage injury and violence against minorities, the yogic action is to advocate for the reduction of harm against those minorities.

    When you understand that police forces routinely oppressed gay communities, arresting them en masse, then you can understand why it was Marsha’s dharma to drop a brick on top of the paddy wagon.

    When you understand that police are killing black people at alarming rates, then you understand why communities are in the midst of an uprising. From deep inside, a voice of knowing is saying: Act up, speak out, fight now or nothing is ever going to change.

    Unfortunately the world is chaotic and truth can be hard to find. We must be discerning and wary of our fears being used to divide us. Fox News and Mr. Trump thrive on stirring up fear and tapping into deeply ingrained racism and phobias to create an unjust anger. This is an anger that is rooted in the idea that the other will come and harm you, attacking your moral sensibility and stealing wealth from your community. This anger is rooted in the delusion of superiority, the mistaken belief that one type of human being has greater value than another.

    Alternatively, sometimes we get angry righteously, but do nothing out of fear that our anger is wrong. The internet is full of memes and ignorant people that make anger seem like the enemy. Being angry with racists and abusers is not poison and your energy is not wasted by feeling this way… These feelings are catalysts of change.

    The question at hand is not ‘Should I be angry?’, because we all definitely should be. The better question here is ‘‘How do I work with all this anger?’

    Yoga teaches me to pause and take a deep breath and find the space to respond skillfully to the pain of injustice. It’s only by seeking conscious contact with the greater powers of my understanding that I keep momentum and know what action is right. When the world mislabeled my anger as hatred, I must tap my soul’s conviction to keep strong and not back down.

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    I grew up in a small town in the South. My community and even my family installed a program of self hatred into me. The word faggot was thrown around with venom and teeth. I responded to these wounds with a valiant attempt to self destruct through drugs and alcohol. That I’m still alive today is a testament to the great suffering I found when I reached my rock bottom and my subsequent relationship with yoga and the higher powers of my understanding.

    So yes, the truth is that I am very angry and my suffering was so great that it left my convictions crystal clear. I know the damage that white, heteronormative ignorance inflicts. I also know that the fact that I’m still alive feels miraculous, and I should not let a miracle go to waste. Not everyone is so lucky after all. My hero Marsha had suffering greater than mine, but never the sweet comfort of healing.

    I remain confident of my calling to be a voice for change by tuning into the great mystery within me. Looking inward, I am reminded that the nature of the soul is an unanswered question and as such the divinity within each life force must be considered created equal and that we must be willing to fight and sacrifice for this end.

    Yoga Sutra ll.16 teaches us a bit about things that cloud this divinity. This Sutra tells the story of ‘ego’, casting it as all the things that obscure the true self. It names this quality of being ‘Asmita’. It’s the sense that we are something that we are not. It’s a feeling that our value is related to what we DO IN THE WORLD. A problem here is that one might also come to believe self worth is determined by what the WORLD DOES TO YOU.

    Transphobia. Racism. Misogyny. These all stem from the mistaken belief that one kind of human being is superior to another. When I tap my intuition, I suspect that the truth may be that we are all a kind of transgender being. I suspect the immutable soul does not identify with the genitals. Or skin color. Or religion.

    That said, here we are having a human experience that comes with a sexual identity. And race. And social status. We live in a world where the passionately delusional among us leverage intolerance to increase their own status. They fear scarcity and suffering, so they act in ways that force us all out of balance and towards chaos.

    Yoga reminds of us what we still might be. It reminds us of our potential, the possibility within and beyond earthly dramas. It encourages to look past the veil of Asmita, not as a way of disregarding Earthly strife, but rather as a way of remembering why action is demanded. The evolution of our personal soul and collective consciousness is on the line.

    Practice provides practical tools. It reminds us how even the world of the mind, body and senses rage like war, even though we may bring a little peace to them. When I sit still to mediate, sometimes there is great pain. Great internal battles are fought as I try to maintain stillness. In my asana practice, there is great struggle. Finding steadiness in the pose comes only with firm effort and some amount of physical discomfort.

    Yes, I dare say that acute physical and psychological pain are, in my opinion, some of the selling points of yoga. Practice helps me cultivate the desire to stay present. When my entire personal history and future constantly elaborate themselves, arguing they are fated by powers beyond my control, I stay present. When today’s choices seem bound to mistakes made what feels like lifetimes ago, I stay present. When the legacy of prejudice and oppression exert their force, I stay present.

    Yoga reminds me I am not those terrible things I did before. Nor am I the weak and sickly thing that broken human beings would have me believe.

    When I practice, when I connect to a spiritual community, when I turn inward, I sense that there is so much more to me. I feel a deep longing to seek balance for myself and others. This calling is rooted in a knowing that humanity is destined for so much more and a sureness that we must fight for our right to transform and transcend.

    I am a seeker. I am a gay human. My pronouns are he/they. I am a creature made of universal love, just like Marsha P Johnson.

    She started this work of reprogramming all these old beliefs of ‘him or her’ or ‘us and them’. It’s my honor to continue it, standing up for self respect, societal equality, justice and insight.

    The divine gave us a beacon in the form of Marsha. Fueled by a glimpse of our own Godliness, what can’t we fight?

    By Joseph Armstrong

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    Joseph Armstrong teaches yoga rooted firmly in tradition but with an eye to the future. His search for a more present and peaceful life first led him to the practice in 2008. A few years later he was in India studying intensively. After finally overcoming a long struggle with addiction, Joseph began experimenting with Ashtanga Yoga. He understood quickly that the lineage was calling to him to deepen his practice. He underwent a 2 year apprenticeship program at the world renowned Miami Life Center, continuing his education under his dear teachers Tim Fieldmann and Kino MacGregor. More recently he has completed 2 months of study in Mysore under Sharath Jois. Joseph teaches yoga because attempts to do any and everything else ended disastrously. But when he finally devoted himself to his passion, he became an asset to himself and others. He hopes his practice allows him to be ever more loving and to exist gently.