The following essay was a runner-up in the 2003 Traditional Yoga Studies essay contest.
Transforming Aggression: Yoga and World Peace
When the topic of world peace comes up, the first thing that comes to mind is the violence and aggression of war. But violence and aggression are rooted within the psychology of people, and peace will grow only as human hearts and consciousness evolve. War—and peace—arise because of the decisions made and actions taken by individuals. Understanding human psychology leads to an understanding of war, and this understanding in turn can be used to create a more peaceful world.
This essay discusses interpersonal conflict, and relates it to institutional aggression, violence and war. It assumes that world peace is desirable, and that peace brings both spiritual and material benefit to society and to the earth itself. This essay shows that the practice of yoga is a path that increases peace and satisfaction, while reducing aggression, violence and war.
Conflict between people takes the forms of assertiveness, aggression and violence. It is fueled by many factors, including greed, selfishness, desire, jealousy, envy, fear, hate and lust for power. However, fuel alone will not start a conflict. It is also necessary to expect (perhaps unconsciously) that the outcome of conflict will be a “better” situation—or at least not a worsened one. We need to expect that discomfort caused by the “fuel” will be reduced after the conflict. When these factors are present, it is natural for conflict to arise.
From the perspective of yoga philosophy, these “fuels” for conflict are all caused by a clouding of our perception, called avidya. Because of avidya, we do not recognize our true spiritual kinship with other people, and we are prone to experience those “fuels” of conflict.
These “fuels” are widely varied, but have one commonality: experiencing any of these emotions or desires is done from an “I” perspective. People who feel these emotions want more (or less) of something for themselves, as compared to what they see in other people. These people do not identify with others, but feel separate from them, left out or isolated. Two powerful tools exist to reduce the effect of these “fuels” within ourselves: cultivating right attitude, and behaving in constructive ways.
The Sage Patanjali
Sculpture by Natalia Rosenfeld
Photo © Yoga Research and Education Foundation
Cultivating right attitude. Some of us feel envious or jealous when we see another who is happy, successful or content. We may feel disgust or even hatred at the sight of a bag lady or a drug addict. In this case, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras prescribe a change in attitude towards other people, a change that will help us purify our minds and become more peaceful. To become more peaceful, we should practice being pleased when we see another who is happy. We should strive to be compassionate for those in misery, and joyful to see virtue in another. Finally, we should be indifferent when we encounter vice—not to accept it or validate those who are involved, but so we do not become emotionally entangled with it. In cultivating these attitudes, we become more accepting of the world and more peaceful toward others.
We need to cultivate right attitude toward ourselves as well as toward others. Non-possessiveness (aparigraha) can be practiced, as can contentment (santosha). Enhancing these two qualities leads to greater satisfaction with one’s life. The greatest increase in satisfaction, however, may come from caring less about the outcome of our actions.
Most of us do things—almost anything—because we want a certain outcome. For instance, we go to work because we want money, health insurance, prestige, power, or other rewards. The job loses some of its satisfaction if any of these rewards is diminished. Conversely, when we value the work itself and have less concern for the rewards, then we are happier. Yes, we need compensation to justify going to work, but when we appreciate the job itself, not just its reward, we are happier. Our satisfaction is no longer limited by the obvious rewards, and it is enhanced by appreciation of the work. In yogic terms, abandoning the rewards is an aspect of ishwara pranidhana. Surprisingly, when we care less about the outcomes of our labor, then the outcomes take care of themselves. We lose nothing by being less concerned for results.
Practicing constructive behavior. Our behavior—how we act—includes both how we treat others, and how we treat ourselves. To become more satisfied in our lives and more peaceful in our treatment of others, we should practice nonviolence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), and non-stealing (asteya), three of the yamas from the Yoga Sutras. For most people, these behaviors are not absolute, but need to be practiced in context. For instance, yoga does not prohibit actively opposing evil, even when that means going to war, when action is needed to preserve the moral and spiritual order required for social stability and personal happiness. Nor does truthfulness (satya) allow speaking the harsh truths that cause pain when uttered, even though they may be factually accurate. Practicing these behaviors towards others reduces our own tendencies toward aggression and violence.
To become more peaceful in how we treat ourselves, we can practice cleanliness (sauca) and self-study (svadhyaya). These self-directed behaviors show respect for ourselves, and give insight into our mental and emotional states. These qualities help us become happier in our lives and less aggressive towards others. Practicing meditation is also known to reduce stress and increase happiness. The meditation teacher’s story (see Transmission without insight, below) documents this effect.
Involving other people. The tools discussed above—cultivating right attitude and practicing constructive behavior—are powerful implements for improving our own state of mind. They help us to become happier and more peaceful. There are many people, however, who don’t want to change their state of mind. They may believe confrontation, competition and even violence are valuable character traits. One example of such a person is a Social Darwinist, who believes that humanity evolves to higher levels through competition and survival of the fittest. From this perspective, cooperation can weaken a culture. Peace may be seen as a state that brings vulnerability rather than happiness. People with these beliefs cannot be forced to change their opinions, but two indirect tools exist that can have an impact on their thinking: creating a new reality and transmission without insight.
Creating a new reality means operationalizing Buckminster Fuller’s statement that, “You don’t change the existing reality by fighting against it. Fighting never changes anything. You create a new reality that makes the old reality obsolete.” The practice of yoga is all about transforming one’s perceptions to create a new reality. Philosophically, the reality is not new, but the perception of it is. The “new reality” includes the recognition that all people have a common spiritual bond and that aggression towards others hurts ourselves as well. The unity of body, mind and spirit that yogis seek is another part of this reality. In order to bring change to someone who doesn’t want it, the first step will be to demonstrate that another way of acting—another reality—is effective and desirable. As more and more people practice yoga, the positive results of their practice will become more visible. This new reality may be pacifist, but won’t be passive. It may involve, for instance, demonstrating “determination and... instigating lawsuits,” as was sometimes done by Sri Yukteswar. Or it may mean demonstrating that though “man may be compelled to exterminate harmful creatures. He is not under a similar compulsion to feel anger or animosity.” In this way, a resistant person will learn that there is an alternate way to live, one which brings happiness and peace but is neither weak nor vulnerable.
Transmission without insight. At times, we bring about changes in ourselves without planning them. As an example, I know a meditator who is an ardent feminist. Some years ago, she was introduced to Buddhism and learned to meditate. She became a teacher. During a recent lecture, she remarked that when she started meditating, she had no idea that her practice would reduce her animosity toward men so much—or she might have been reluctant to start. Without planning it, without even wanting it, her practice made her happier and less hostile. Her life is being transformed to one of greater satisfaction and happiness.
The value of this anecdote lies in recognizing that meditation has a reputation for improving mental focus, independent of its spiritual content. Even people who cling to the merits of competition and survival of the fittest may choose to learn meditation after seeing the profit it offers. They would see this profit because the “new reality” makes it clear, and they would learn meditation as a useful tool for their lifestyle. As they continue to meditate, they would not only gain the benefit they expect, greater mental focus and effectiveness, they could become more peaceful as well.
Many people do not want to be less aggressive or happier. They want more power and more control. They don’t want cooperation. They see themselves as separate from others, and as responsible for their own success. Their world view assumes that they can and should decide what is proper, and that others must conform to their desires. These people will not be swayed by arguments about the happiness that accrues after several years of meditation, or the peace to be found in recognizing one’s true Self. They want results, and they want them now. Even these people can accept a yoga practice, if it is presented to them in a way they value, which usually means a “physical” practice.
Many yogis lament the “merely physical” yoga practice that is common in the West today. For instance, Judith Lasater writes, “Lots of people know about yoga, but the actual practice is more shallow and for many simply physical.” For that matter, one purpose of the YREC essay competition for which this essay is being written, is “to countermand the current popular trend of reducing Yoga to fitness training.” Contrarily, this essay argues that treating yoga as fitness training is good. I do not believe that yoga can be merely physical, unless a deliberate effort is made to counteract the stress reduction and satisfying physical openness that comes from asana practice. Stress reduction by itself makes room for spirituality, reduces tension, and makes people less prone to anger and violence. This point was driven home to me by a former chemical dependency counselor who used yoga with his clients. He liked using yoga because, “they think it is just physical.” In other words, his clients had a “merely physical” practice, but they were helped in emotional and spiritual ways as well. Yogic benefits were transmitted to them without insight. We as yogis should encourage the practice of yoga as physical exercise, when taught by qualified teachers, because more than physical health is improved by the practice. As these people practice asanas, their will be prepared for deeper and more profound growth, and without arousing resistance, hostility or resentment. This type of practice should be encouraged.
Resistance to the spread of yoga should be expected, both overt and unspecific. After all, aggression works. Dominance works. Comfort, wealth, and admiration accrue to those in positions of power. There is no reason for people who are successful by these criteria to change their behavior or their mental outlook, unless they see something better or they become dissatisfied with what they have. The seeds of conflict described above—greed, selfishness, desire, jealousy, envy, fear, hate and lust for power—yield not only conflict but material comfort, and they work. So long as these seeds are seen as steps to a “better” life, then other seeds will not be valued. It is up to those of us who practice yoga to demonstrate that yoga also works, and that its seeds bear fruit that is even more valuable, fruit which is not available by other paths.
Summary. It is clear that yoga can transform a practitioner who wants to change. It is equally clear that others may not see a benefit to the practice, and may reject the transformation that results from yoga. Nevertheless, those of us who value peace and cooperation, and who seek the spiritual growth available through yoga, can positively influence others. This influence is both through our own example and by offering yogic tools that are useful to them. We must demonstrate the value of yoga, and offer it in forms that they can utilize. In doing so, we will encourage the transformation of striving, ego, fear and attachment into more satisfying, constructive and peaceful attitudes.
So far, we have talked of reducing aggression and violence within people. How do we expand the impact of yoga on individuals to the larger context of creating a peaceful society? After all, violence works and war works. Violence and war are just as effective in achieving their global ends as the seeds of conflict, discussed above, are in creating interpersonal conflict and gain. As the cynical joke says, “although the pen is mightier than the sword, at any given moment, the sword speaks louder and more clearly.”
Institutional aggression appears in the form of conflict between nations, between political groups, between religions, by outlaw groups against the lawful order, and between other groups. It may involve war, economic exploitation, ideological conflict or religious quests. The goals of these conflicts include asserting dominance, gaining power, gaining resources, seeking revenge, financial gain and, of course, avoiding defeat at the hands of another group.
It is clear that violence and war are effective tools for a powerful nation to impose its will on a weaker one at minimal cost—the United States demonstrated this in Granada in 1983, as have other nations in other places. The mere threat of war is a powerful tool for gaining concessions, a tool which North Korea is using currently. The recent Cold War can be seen as a non-military conflict between political ideologies. The Protestant-Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland is a power struggle with religious and cultural content. And as always, some people profit from war—they have a personal reason to promote conflict. In all these cases, violence and war are effective tools. Violence and war work.
The counter to the perception that violence “works” is to note that peace also works. In the absence of destructiveness, physical and mental resources can be devoted to meeting basic human needs and to providing comfort. More energy is available for pursuing artistic, educational and spiritual goals. The focus of a culture can move from conquest and protection to building and growth.
Combat itself cannot end war, but merely continues it. The most direct way to address the problem of violence and war may be to note that the causes of war are very similar to the seeds of conflict within people: greed, selfishness, desire, jealousy, envy, fear, hate and lust for power. Nations, cultures, and churches are motivated by the same factors as are people, because ultimately they are composed of people. Transforming people as described above will eventually lead to transformed organizations.
Organizations have their own character and inertia, beyond the psychologies of their constituencies. Peace-focused institutions, like the United Nations, can demonstrate alternatives to conflict that are less violent, or even non-violent. More such organizations are needed. The proliferation of violence-reducing groups is needed to offer alternatives to the many force-oriented institutions in existence today. Yoga contributes to the growth of non-violent and violence-reducing institutions by contributing ashrams, political icons like Mahatma Gandhi, and organizations like the Self-Realization Fellowship. As these organizations grow in size and influence, and as personal psychology transforms, the major national, cultural and religious institutions will also transform or they will be replaced.
Summary. War and violence—whether military, economic, ideological or religious—is caused by much the same factors as aggression between people, because they are made up of people. Changes within individuals will eventually change the institutions that they make up, though this will take generations. The practice of yoga will be central to the transformation of individuals, and those individuals will create—and are creating—institutions to replace or transform our current multiplicity of force- and power-oriented organizations.
The practice of yoga was designed to unite the individual with the Infinite. It removes the veil of avidya that clouds our perceptions and transforms us to powerful, happy and peaceful people—sometimes without our permission.
Yoga has a direct benefit for practitioners, and an indirect impact on non-practitioners and institutions. As time passes, yoga will help people to have richer, more satisfying lives, and will lead institutions to become more peaceful.
I recently completed a prestigious yoga teacher training program. Halfway through the training, I realized that I was gaining valuable knowledge: understanding of asana structure, effective teaching methods, and insight into Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. But I realized with surprise that I was happier and my life was more of a pleasure. The most important thing I learned during teacher training was completely unexpected: it was joy. Perhaps the key to transforming war is to give so much joy to the world that we all stop needing violence to reduce our frustrations, ignorance and fear.
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