Toward a More Perfect Union: The United States of Yoga
America’s founders probably never read the Yoga Sutra or the Bhagavad Gita. But if we compare the ideas set forth in the Declaration of Independence with the vision and values of the yogic sages, we might find them to be surprisingly similar. Both yoga and the Declaration of Independence affirm that freedom and the opportunity for fulfillment are the birthright of all. And reflecting the yogic wisdom that says each of us is born with the same divinity as our core, the Declaration asserts that we are all created equal:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Much of the nation’s history has been the struggle to extend these ideals in practice to all individuals in her society, regardless of race, religion, or gender.
Yoga is about union—an absence of walls between oneself and the ultimate reality, and between ourselves and others. America’s founders worked to “form a more perfect union” built on the ideals of liberty and equality. This union sought to demolish the walls between independent colonies, and between a government and the governed. It also aspired to bring together as equal under the law both rich and poor, as well as those with different national, ethnic, and religious affiliations.
Conflict, Dharma, and the Kleshas
In the years since the country’s founding, America has made great efforts to reconcile the contradictions between stated ideals and reality—from ending slavery to extending voting rights across lines of race and gender, to fighting all forms of prejudice and discrimination. The country’s history has been a great experiment in liberty, equality, and personal rights conducted in an increasingly large, diverse, and complex society. With the growth in size and diversity, the potential for contradictions and conflicts has also grown.
The country’s history has been a great experiment in liberty, equality, and personal rights conducted in an increasingly large, diverse, and complex society.
As historian Joseph J. Ellis notes in his biography of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx, one person’s rights and liberties often collide with those of another. Here are some familiar examples:
The right to a clean and healthy environment vs. the right of businesses to be free from burdensome environmental regulations.
The right to carry a gun vs. the right to be safe from gun violence.
Freedom to terminate a pregnancy vs. the right to life.
The right of shareholders to maximize return on their investment vs. the right of workers to a decent wage.
Government has often played the role of referee in such continuing conflicts—from restricting environmentally harmful emissions, to creating the minimum wage and other fair labor standards, to ruling on the right to abortion. But in the last few years, frustration and fear fueled by demographic and economic changes and the threat of terrorism have led to political polarization and government gridlock that make resolving conflicts increasingly challenging. Paralysis in elected government has helped to create a deeply divided citizenry. While some groups feel angry and disenfranchised, others fear losing what they have.
If we could ask a yogic sage for advice, the first thing he or she might tell us is that the exercise of one’s rights and liberties needs to be guided by dharma, a word stemming from the root dhri, meaning to support or sustain. Sometimes translated as “duty,” dharma means doing what supports or sustains the well-being of all. It means putting that universal well-being ahead of one’s own interests and agendas. Without dharma, the exercise of one’s rights and freedoms can too easily come at the cost of injury to others. At a national level, dharma means including all sectors of society in the general well-being, and protecting the natural world that sustains all of us. Our sage would also tell us that it’s more difficult to practice dharma when our minds are caught in the grip of the five mental afflictions, known in yoga as the kleshas. Under the influence of the kleshas, instead of identifying with the pure consciousness at our core, we identify with a narrow, false self-identity based on things such as economic status, political affiliation, or religion. We pursue and hold tightly to anything that bolsters our narrow identity (such as wealth, power, or feeling that our race or religion is superior), and we fear, exclude, or hate those who are different from us or who threaten our identity.
The 5 Kleshas (Mental Afflictions)
Avidya—mistaking the unreal for the real, and the fleeting for what is permanent
Asmita—believing that a narrow, false ego-identity, rather than pure consciousness, is our true identity
Raga—desire or attachment
Dvesha—aversion or hatred
Abhinivesha—fear, especially fear of death or loss of our identity
The kleshas have been with us since America’s founding. In fact, it was the founders’ awareness of the kleshic human tendency to seek and misuse power that motivated them to establish in the Constitution a system of checks and balances among the three branches of the federal government. The kleshas remain at work wherever possessiveness, fear, hatred, or the denial of others' rights or well-being have taken hold.
If we want to elect enlightened leaders, each individual must become more enlightened.
Our yogic sage would warn us that feeding the kleshas—encouraging prejudice, hatred, and fear—will never lead a country to greater harmony and equity. It will only engender resentment and conflict. The way to move the country forward is for its citizens to begin to free themselves from the kleshas. This is not a quick or easy process, and it happens one individual at a time. If we want to elect enlightened leaders, each individual must become more enlightened. Fortunately, yoga gives us a wonderful system for accomplishing this.
Freeing Ourselves from the Kleshas: Yoga and the Yoga Community
Just as the nation's founders gained freedom from a tyrannical government, yoga offers us freedom from the tyranny of the kleshas. In this sense, yoga is the ultimate Declaration of Independence because it provides a systematic, step-by-step method for freeing the mind from these afflictions once and for all. The instruction manual is the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, and its eight limbs of yoga contain the practices it prescribes.
Yoga has enormous transformative power. And because we in the yoga community are already aware of yoga’s potential, we have a key role in the process of transforming our societies as we transform ourselves. As each of us evolves, we create a ripple effect, inspiring others to do the same. A kind of “pass it forward.”
As we clear and calm our minds through yoga practice—and especially through meditation—anger and hatred in and around us begin to subside. As we connect with our core, we experience inner joy, freedom, and fulfillment that allow us to let go of old identities, attachments, and fears. This engenders a love and compassion that leave little room for the kleshas.
This process of self-transformation is the finest way for anyone—American or not—to honor and fulfill America’s highest ideals. It is also the highest purpose of our lives.
Nancy Lilienthal is a former editor at Yoga International, a longtime practitioner of yoga, especially meditation, and an American history enthusiast. She lives in a yoga community.