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Yoga Revolution: A Call for Social Justice On and Off the Mat (A Book Review)
How does yoga relate to social justice? Jivana Heyman’s new book Yoga Revolution: Building a Practice of Courage and Compassion links the two concepts, calling us to embrace yoga’s teachings internally and in the world at large.
Author Jivana Heyman is no stranger to weaving social justice into his work as a yoga teacher. As founder and director of the nonprofit Accessible Yoga Association, Jivana has devoted his career to serving communities traditionally underrepresented in yoga spaces. His new book Yoga Revolution is a reflection of his lessons learned through 25 years of supporting education and advocacy to promote human rights in yoga.
Why Is Now the Moment for Social Justice in Yoga?
From AIDS activism to teaching yoga to people with disabilities, Jivana has been working toward social justice and inclusion for most of his life. And yet, now more than ever, these topics are becoming the focal point of conversations in the yoga community. Jivana was inspired to write Yoga Revolution after witnessing the collective shift toward social justice brought about by the Black Lives Matters movement.
Although diversity and equity seemed to be on everyone’s mind following protests against police brutality and white supremacy in 2020, Black Lives Matter’s teachings against oppression and exclusion of marginalized groups were by no means new. In fact, the concept of radical compassion is articulated in Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras. And yet, yoga’s ancient wisdom of compassion is all too often forgotten in a culture where image, profit, and Instagram followers may seem to determine one’s worth as a yoga teacher. In writing Yoga Revolution, Jivana reminds us of yoga’s inclusive roots.
Yoga Revolution Begins Within
How do we begin to incorporate social justice into our work as yoga teachers and practitioners? Yoga Revolution encourages us to work from the inside out. Part 1 of the book outlines how we can start a revolution within ourselves by embodying yoga’s ancient teachings in our modern lives. Jivana pushes us to go beyond the superficial in our personal practice, stating:
“The yoga begins when you lie on your mat and cry—not when you’re doing some fancy pose.”
It can be tempting to pose in a yoga posture, even if no one is watching. As humans, we are innately social beings, so it’s only natural to seek validation from others by performing in our yoga practice. But rather than being concerned with how a posture looks on the outside or with cultivating a “yoga bod,” Jivana affirms it’s more important to notice how our practice feels and whether it brings us into closer alignment with our highest self.
But what exactly should our highest self look like? Jivana warns the contemporary view of yogis as quiet, unimposing pacifists can feel out of alignment when social justice is at the forefront of many yoga practitioners’ minds. This is a dangerous misperception when, in reality, yoga and activism can both be part of our truth. By adopting quiet, contemplative practices, we can awaken to the causes we feel passionate about. The wisdom that can inspire us to act is most powerful when it arises from within us, rather than when it is spoon-fed to us by a teacher, as Jivana explains here:
“We have created modern yoga systems around a philosophy of quietness, calmness, and stillness, which feels misguided for contemporary householder practitioners. Rather, we can engage with our inner wisdom, our wise mind. This is a different kind of empowered practice, where we have the tools within us to find the truth. We don’t have to become empty vessels for a teacher or guru to fill us with wisdom.”
Social Justice Off the Mat
After the seeds of revolution have been planted within us, our yoga practice can translate to our actions in the world. In Part 2 of Yoga Revolution, Jivana encourages us to live in line with our values in our interactions with our friends, families, and community. The key here is that our own cups need to be filled before we can tend to the needs of others with energy and integrity. From a grounded foundation of self-care, we can then embrace the yogic tradition of Seva, or service, to care for and uplift those around us.
Through Seva, we can dedicate our actions and yoga teachings to encouraging and celebrating radical acceptance. In his book, Jivana shares a new vision of yogic enlightenment, outlining a framework called “rainbow mind” to embrace the full spectrum of diversity inherent to our world. He explains the clear vision that can arise from Samadhi, the eighth limb of yoga which represents divine clarity, stating:
“Samadhi is a neutral state, where our mind’s influence disappears; it is perfectly clear vision. This is what I like to call, ‘rainbow mind,’ pure clarity and neutrality, accepting all and loving without prejudice. This is a mind that is so expansive it’s as wide as a rainbow, and also willing to accept and celebrate difference.”
The “rainbow mind” is a nod to the radical inclusion that underlies the LGBTQI+ flag as well as a vision for accepting and acknowledging the full spectrum of people who walk our planet and the thoughts that inhabit our minds. In framing the fruits of our yoga practice through the “rainbow mind,” Jivana teaches us to rally against the misperception of the quiet yogi, instead of embracing social justice at the core of yogic truth.
Yoga Revolution: Social Justice in Yogic Practice
In Part 3 of Yoga Revolution, Jivana outlines practical tips for embodying social justice in our daily yoga practice. In this section, he includes a simple chair and mat practice as well as final notes on finding the teacher within us all. Throughout the book, Yoga Revolution is narrated in a personal tone that makes us feel as though we are sitting in on a dharma talk with Jivana. He offers us courageous personal reflections based on his own experience as a teacher, practitioner, activist, and parent. Through his powerful narration, we are encouraged to feel as though we are part of a sangha, or community, gathered together around the spirit of Jivana’s book.
Working from inner revolution to practical action in our teachings and daily life, Yoga Revolution encourages us to approach yoga with courage, clarity, and kindness to heal our own hearts, minds, and the world at large.
Lacey Ramirez works for YogaUOnline and is an ERYT-500 yoga teacher, global health researcher, and writer based in the California Bay Area. Through her work, she seeks to make yoga accessible, inclusive, and equitable.
Lacey discovered yoga as a tool for centering during her years as a competitive runner. Since then, yoga has served as a way to connect with her body throughout her experience of pregnancy and parenthood. She teaches because she hopes others can use this sacred practice for calming, healing, and transformation.
As a yoga teacher, Lacey specializes in teaching restorative, Yin, prenatal, and trauma-informed Vinyasa yoga. She has also completed birth doula and prenatal/postnatal barre certifications and trainings. Additionally, she holds a Masters of Science in Global Health and Population from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. To learn more and connect, visit her website laceyramirez.com
Jivana Heyman (he/him), C-IAYT, E-RYT 500, is the author of Accessible Yoga: Poses & Practices for Every Body (Shambhala, 2019), and Yoga Revolution: Building a Practice of Courage & Compassion (Shambhala, 2021). Jivana is the founder and director of the Accessible Yoga Association, an international non-profit organization dedicated to increasing access to yoga teachings. He’s also the co-founder of the Accessible Yoga School, an online portal focusing on equity and accessibility. More information at jivanaheyman.com