March 12, 2012

Our Great Sage: 3 Reasons Why Stephen Fry May Be the Greatest Yogi Never to Have Practiced Yoga. ~ Amy Jirsa

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

“You are who you are when nobody’s watching.”

~Stephen Fry

I am not writing this article just because I have a great love and admiration for Stephen Fry which dates back to his Fry & Laurie and Jeeves & Wooster days. I am also not writing this article simply because Stephen Fry is, hands down, the number one person (alive or dead) with whom I’d have lunch when asked the question in that ice-breaker game. I’m also not writing this as a clever attempt to meet Mr. Fry. Well, maybe I am (just a little bit).

But, no. The real reason I’m writing this article is because yoga has taken several hits lately on the questions of morality and right action (fairly or unfairly is not the issue of this particular piece—there are plenty of articles out there posing that particular question), and we need a little boost. The yoga world is a small world and an intimate one; we want to be open and accepting, but we seem to be moving more toward exclusivity despite our claims of inclusivity.

So, what about casting a wider net?

After all, we yoga instructors are always talking to our students about practicing yoga both on and off the mat; this teaching presumes that yoga can be practiced without the physical component (asana). Indeed, many yoga practitioners claim to be yogis without incorporating the Yamas (ethical practices and restraints highlighted in the Yoga Sutras written by the Brahmin sage, Pantanjali) and the Niyamas (specific self-observances also put forth by Patanjali) or even meditation.

If a purely physical practice can be an accepted definition of yoga then the reverse, too, can be true. Let us also not forget about Jnana Yoga which, for simplicity’s sake, we’ll consider the path of wisdom, study, and philosophy and assume that the same ethical practices pertain to this path as well as to any, more physical, yogic path.

Okay, good. Now, finally, enter Stephen Fry: a Jnana yogi (though he may not know it yet), self-identified humanist and atheist who, for the following three reasons, should be adopted whole-heartedly, and with much fanfare, into our yogic community.

1. Swadhaya, or Self-Study

Swadhaya is the study, not only of the self, but also of spiritual texts to promote an understanding of life and existence. Stephen Fry is a self-identified humanist and atheist. These are not philosophies one comes to without a serious study of one’s self as well as past and current religious and philosophical texts. Without an examination of our place in history and discovering what you think about our past behaviors and future prospects, then there is no way to truly know and be yourself. Who you are can only be revealed by the sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes exhilarating, practice of meditation and self-reflection. This is who you really are, by the way, not who your political party/fashion icon/religious affiliation says you are. And this, nicely segued, brings me to point two.

“I am a lover of truth, a worshiper of freedom, a celebrant at the altar of language and purity and tolerance.”

~ Stephen Fry

2. Satya, or Living According to your own Truth:

Satya is one of Patanjali’s five Yamas and, in my opinion, the most important. If you aren’t living your own truth, what are you doing? One of the first things yoga should teach us is what other people think of us is none of our business. You only have to read an entry or two of Mr. Fry’s blog to see that the man is thoroughly and always himself. With three million+ followers on Twitter, I think it’s safe to say that being yourself, even if by doing so incites controversy, is the only ethical choice one can make and a choice that can inspire a great many people to follow one’s example. When you are yourself you must stand up for truth, you must live according to your ethical values. Satya also means being honest enough to change your opinion as well as admitting when you’ve been wrong. And so we move on to point three.

3. Ahimsa, or Non-Harming:

Ahimsa means non-violence or non-harming and applies to all aspects of your life, including your treatment toward and attitude of yourself. Ahimsa is also often linked to judgment, which can be, admittedly, a gray area. When I say judgment, I don’t mean that we can’t hold opinions about others and express them; what I mean is that we can’t deem whether a person is good or bad based on his or her opinions. We can only examine our own truth, express our agreement or disagreement and then act based on those assessments.

And, yes, in the yoga world, non-harming often includes veganism/vegetarianism. Is Stephen Fry a vegetarian? I sincerely doubt it. But many yogis are not and believe ahimsa is maintained through ethical treatment of livestock. Ahimsa can be practiced on, and applied to, many levels. For example, as a yoga instructor, I see students disregarding ahimsa when they allow the ego to push them into poses for which their bodies are not ready. But that’s another article for another time.

I add ahimsa to this list because it is a form of satya. When you live your truth and express your true opinions, you are very likely to offend someone; you are very likely to make quick judgments which can hurt any number of people (and with a following such as the outspoken Mr. Fry’s, I would imagine causing offense is an unavoidable aspect of life). However, it is what you do when you make unfair or quick judgments that identifies you as a practitioner of ahimsa.

When Mr. Fry inadvertently offended much of Poland in 2009, he made a very long, very public apology, acknowledging his mistake by beginning: “I sometimes think that when I die there should be two graves dug: the first would be the usual kind of size, say 2 feet by 7, but the other would be much, much larger. The gravestone should read: Me and My Big Mouth.” You can see how closely linked ahimsa and satya can be and that one without the other is very far from the yogic path, indeed.


No one would argue that the yogic path is one of ease (indeed, the old saying, if enlightenment were easy, then everyone would be doing it, comes to mind). It is a path of controversy, of independence and possible loneliness, of humanitarianism and of idealism tempered with practicality. When looked at this way, the physical asana, though important for building discipline and as a good preparation for meditation, does not a yogi make, despite the attention lathered upon it in yoga circles.

So here is my motion: If he would choose to accept the position, I move we embrace Stephen Fry as one of our ambassadors. Having someone in our assemblage possessing of such integrity, honesty, eloquence and, yes, a damned fantabulous sense of humor can only raise our stock. And, hey, if it doesn’t, then at least we have an icon who can teach us a thing or two about coming through controversy gracefully and honestly while keeping our humor and a true sense of self throughout.


Editor: Tanya L. Markul

Amy Jirsa is a writer, wanderer, yoga instructor and master herbalist. She makes her home at her studio, Quiet Earth Yoga, in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her articles can be found on elephant journal, mindbodygreen, and on her blog. And if that’s not enough, you can also find her at Twitter @QuietEarthYoga or on Facebook (Quiet Earth Yoga).  




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