Weeding the Mind

hanam esham kleshavad uktam

The greatest obstacle to the practice is one’s own prejudices based on one’s own preferences. –

Master Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Book four, Sutra 28

There was a time in our history when human slavery was normal. Scientific and religious myths were used to justify the Transatlantic slave trade. In his acclaimed Systema Naturae (1735), Swedish biologist Linnaeus produced the first racial classification of humans. We can read that Homo sapiens Europaeus is white, serious, strong”, Asiaticus is “yellow, melancholic, greedy”, Americanus is “red, ill tempered, subjugated” and “Afer is ‘black, impassive, lazy.” These stereotypes have allowed the cruel exploitation of an entire continent for centuries. They have shaped what is commonly called “the West” or the “first world” – as opposed to the “south” or “the third world” – as if chronic poverty and disempowerment were some genetically transmissible conditions, or their opposite, a birthright for some people. Like castes in medieval India, race can be a matter of life and death in modern America. Patriarchy is the norm in all our modern societies. The color of one’s skin, their gender, their religion, and their language are arbitrary criteria still commonly used to establish someone’s identity. In truth, they constitute a set of prejudgments about human diversity. As prevalent as they still are, there is nothing natural or scientific about racial or gender hierarchies.

We are all far more complex than perceived and infinitely resourceful. In the midst of slavery, blues music was born. In Cuba, the drumming of Africans slaves blended with the melodies of Spanish conquistadores to make the Rumba (which literally means “party”). A seemingly petite woman can easily flow from handstand to crow pose, or bring about social change where muscle and gun power have failed. We can practice asanas and mudras in a ritualistic, selfish and mundane way or we can use them as a way to stretch further than touching our toes or catching our ankles but to dismantle our global culture of exploitation of humans and non-human beings equally. All beings want to be heard and seen beyond the superficial.

Whether they are teaching in their home in Woodstock, in Tokyo, in Berlin or in Kenya, my teachers are known for feeding animals organic food and throwing impromptu dance parties in their yoga classes. Sharon Gannon has a particular way to greet a room of hundreds yogis smiling and making gentle eye contact with everyone. I once saw David Life interrupting his talk to free a fly caught in, whispering “free at last”. The yoga students gathered around him had not even noticed the small insect. “When it comes to having a central nervous system, and the ability to feel pain, hunger, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” said Ingrid Newkirk.

The yogi wants to meaningfully relate with others. Master Iyengar compares prejudices to weeds. Good gardening requires constant vigilance and patience. Weeds like vasanas – our latent tendencies – must be kept in check. They can be preempted and removed before they set seed. They proliferate in certain soils. The seasoned gardener knows that changing the soil conditions can loosen the weeds grip on it. The practice of weeding could be extended to our entire lives. We cannot act wisely from a conditioned mind. The promise of Book fourth of Patanjali’s yoga sutras is that when the weeds of prejudice – even in their subtlest form – are completely eradicated, the yogi can reach the state of Kaivalya, absolute freedom. Before reaching that point, the serious students of yoga have to work with their obstacles – not brushing them away. When we talk about the social ills, we are talking about the intensification of personal prejudices. Rather than deeming the current situation an absolute tragedy, the yogi should never miss a single opportunity for bettering her (or him) self.

Commit, or recommit, to a daily meditation practice. Make the first step, move your mat to a different corner of the room, introduce yourself, say something personal and always do your best to listen intently. It is a great antidote to gossip and finger waging. Random acts of kindness rarely make it to the headlines news but they do leave an imprint on the collective consciousness.

Jeanine Munyeshuli Barbé


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