It’s 11:15 Sunday morning. I’m wandering around Academy park in Albany, across the street from the New York state capitol, the site of the burgeoning Occupy Albany movement. During an early season snowstorm in late October, some referred to the encampment as “Valley Forge,” but today it’s sunny and a mere 45 degrees. I’m accosting everyone I see, letting them know that there will be a yoga class at 11:30 in front of the music stage. Though I get a few strange looks and a couple of “no, thank you,” the positive reactions are disarming. Faces light up. “Oh, I’ve been talking about wanting to do yoga since I’ve been staying here.” “My body is so sore from sleeping on the ground, that’s exactly what I need.” One guy jokingly says, “oh yoga” and busts a David Carradine warrior monk move right out of Kung Fu.
We are wearing shoes, coats, and stocking caps. We stand on the grass in a horseshoe-shaped circle and 9 of us do 30 minutes of what one might want to call, Occupation Yoga. About half men, half women, some are beginners and some more experienced. One person is so inspired by the scene, that she spontaneously keeps leaving her spot to take pictures of the group. (I feel compelled to suggest that she remove the camera hanging from a strap around her neck in forward fold.) We warm our bodies with Breath of Joy. We put our hands on our hearts and bellies, re-connecting to our mysterious source. We raise and lower our arms with the breath and move our necks toward blessed release. We stand our ground in mountain pose, 5-pointed star, Warrior II and Goddess pose. We don’t have mats and we don’t bother getting on the cold ground. We blow our stuffed-up, chilled noses in some Kleenex I brought and do alternate nostril breathing. I read a quotation by Archbishop Oscar Romero that is on a t-shirt of mine (Yes, I brought the t-shirt and actually read from the t-shirt):
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
We conclude by chanting the sacred sound of om. We honor the highest spirit in each other. There is gratitude everywhere.
I’ve been organizing with a working group of the Occupy Albany movement and we call ourselves, MindBodySpirit. We are mostly part-time occupiers who are committed to offering emotional, physical and spiritual support to other occupiers. We are counselors, social workers, yoga teachers, chaplains, massage therapists and others who want to help sustain the movement. As a long-time community organizer and a university professor of community organizing this has been some of the most challenging organizing I’ve engaged in (though I think I always say that every time I get involved in a new community organizing endeavor. The reality is that it’s always just complicated and difficult work). The Occupy movement is exciting, but because it is new and there is a sense of urgency about getting it off the ground, things seem to be always teetering on barely managed chaos. Someone said recently, “about every 6 hours, the sky is falling.” There is always some crisis involved with living in a park in the Fall in a leaderless movement. Use your imagination – think sanitation, precipitation and miscommunication.
My practice is not to be attached to the results of these efforts. The other day I felt overwhelmed, overburdened, and angry. I was wondering what I’d gotten myself into. According to the Yoga Sutras, “mental modifications are restrained by practice and non-attachment.” Swami Satchidananda says: “of these two, the non-attachment is more important.” To achieve this requires some frequent and serious one-on-ones with the ego.
There’s something about this movement that captures our imaginations – humans from all walks of life trying to create a utopian community in the midst of a very destructive society. But, how do we keep this vision protected from our heedless egos? How do we stay clear about the issues, goals and objectives of the work? How do we keep connected to what is purest about ourselves and everyone else, including the 1%? It’s my dharma to explore these questions. And there are others like me who want to put spiritual practice into action and to bring spirituality to social action. There are those of us who are compelled to see just what role yoga and other spiritual practices can play in fostering a beautiful, powerful and sustained social movement that is dynamically evolving moment to moment.
It is most certainly true that we are just tending seeds that likely won’t blossom in our lifetimes. But, we have an astonishing opportunity to practice non-attachment and that requires infinite patience. As Rilke says:
One should experience patience
with what is unsolved in the heart
and try to love the questions themselves
as secret little chambers
as books written in an unknown language
And it’s not all spiritual asceticism. There are tangible rewards for this work right now – a new friendship, a steaming hot cup of sencha green tea donated to the occupation by a local tea shop, and a heartfelt thank you from an unshowered, dread-locked young man who has just taken his first yoga class on a luminous Fall day in an Occupied park. And, who knows, maybe Cuomo will re-new the Millionaire’s tax.
Loretta Pyles, Ph.D., is a yoga teacher and scholar-activist-educator living in upstate New York. She is an Associate Professor at the School of Social Welfare at the State University at New York at Albany and author of the book, Progressive Community Organizing: A Critical Approach for a Globalizing World (Routledge, 2009). She has worked as a community organizer and engaged scholar on issues of economic justice, gender-based violence, and disaster recovery. Her current research, funded by the National Science Foundation, is a comparative study of disaster recovery in Haiti and the US Gulf Coast. She has been actively involved in various aspects of the Occupy Albany movement since its inception. Loretta began practicing zen meditation in the Korean tradition in 1999 and has also practiced dzogchen and vipassana meditation. Her practice today is traditional hatha yoga and tantra. She has studied the yoga of sound with Russill Paul and completed yoga teacher training with Senior ParaYoga teacher, Lauren Toolin. Her dharma is to explore how spiritual practice can advance social change endeavors.