YOGA JOURNAL – ABORIGINAL SPIRITUAL TEACHINGS AND YOGA

March 2, 2017

 

So happy to have a piece in the new Australian Yoga Journal about the connections between Aboriginal wisdom, Ayurveda and yoga. And especially super impressed with editor Jessica Humphries for being brave enough to publish on controversial topics such as the National Anthem and the Australia Day date. I didn’t expect those topics to get over the line for a fairly mainstream publication and I am totally delighted that they did. There is also some awesome vegan content in this issue. We’ve come a long way! Please buy a copy this month if you support these important issues showing up in ‘lifestyle’ journalism. Activism is alive and kicking in the Australian yoga community and reflected by great publications like this.  Here is the piece in full:

 

 

Wisdom Traditions: Together we are Stronger.

 

Katie Manitsas reflects on the connections between Yoga, Ayurveda and Indigenous Wisdom at the Bulwalwanga Ran Festival in southern New South Wales.  

 

The idea for the Bulwalwanga Ran Festival on the New South Wales south coast of Australia started with the throw of a spear.  Ayurvedic doctor Shaun Matthews has been interested in the connections between yoga’s ‘sister science’ Ayurveda and Australia’s indigenous healing methodologies for many years.  It is a topic he and Aboriginal Elder ‘Uncle’ Noel Butler have discussed many times.  When Uncle Noel Butler taught Shaun’s son to throw a spear whilst spending time in the bush together on one such occasion Shaun realised the importance of honouring and sharing Aboriginal practices with all Australian’s so that as he says ‘we can learn form each other and find the best ways to support personal as well as planetary wellbeing.’  Shaun feels that by celebrating indigenous and other world wisdom traditions that honour the Earth, we can take some small steps to redress some of the wrongs of the past when Europeans first encountered the First Nations of Australia.  With this intention in mind the first Bulwalwanga Ran Festival took place in January of 2017, and was a bringing together of folk from many lineages, mobs and clans with one common interest – healing and learning together.

 

Shaun is not alone in his vision, yoga teacher David Life, co-founder of the Jivamukti Yoga method, reflects on this topic stating at a recent yoga workshop ‘we should ask ourselves why there are not more people of colour here with us in this room today.’  With the rise of yoga in the West we can all focus on where yoga can reach out to diverse communities and learn from the indigenous cultures local to us.  This focus on collaboration can herald very practical and results-based outcomes; spiritual activism in action was abundant in the recent ‘Standing Rock’ peaceful protests over indigenous land in the USA; with positive results for the communities involved.

 

Yoga, ayurveda and aboriginal spiritual teachings all honour the intuitive realm and suggest that if we become quiet enough in ourselves, through mediation for example or through spending time living close to the earth, healing will take place.  The word ‘Bulwalwanga’ after which the festival is named means ‘we are strong’ and points to the ideas that our nature and our birth-rite is to heal.  Even the seemingly insurmountable problems faced by contemporary aboriginal communities and by the environment of this great land can be healed, beginning with taking small steps – the Bulwalwanga Festival is a small attempt at one of those steps forward.

 

‘The ancient Yogi’s and the Aboriginal Elders of Australia both knew the same thing, that our essential nature is peace.  This gets obscured by the conscious and unconscious mind but the peace is there, part of who you are, from conception until the day you shed your physical body.’ says Shaun Matthews.  ‘The wisdom traditions of India and Australia both know this.’

 

The Rishi’s in India had an acute observational sense and learned from the land and animals around them. We need only look at the names of the yoga poses to see this – we learn from the form of the tree and the mountain and the snake and the lion.  The Aboriginal people had this same ability to learn from the natural world around them, a practice which they call ‘the listening’.

 

In New York City’s Bronx the Wise Earth School of Ayurveda founded by Maya Tiwari (Mother Maya) has also worked hard to bring to life simple Ayurvedic wellness practices and nutrition education to a very underprivileged community.  The Misson which has been established for nearly 20 years now identified early on the importance of collaboration.   ‘We realised when we started the Mother Om Mission (MOM) that we would need to educate and train respected members of the community we were working with  [in the principals of Ayurveda] to deliver and maintain the work.’  Maya Tiwari says.  ‘There is no point in coming in as an outsider and delivering suggestions and instructions even if they are positive.  We need to work with the existing community members and elders, exchanging support with one another.’

 

This sentiment is echoed deeply in the ethos of the Bulwalwanga Ran Festival, where a melting pot of cultures from all over the globe come together to be close to the land and to not only celebrate diversity but to deeply honour and respect each others lineages and ancestory.  From biodynamic farming with it’s roots in Rudolph Steiner’s Germany of the 1920’s, to Aboriginal wisdom of Australia that is thousands of years old and the ancient Vedic teachings of yoga, ayurveda and fire ritual the festival honours the common interests of so many indigenous cultures which is that of working with the land, the animals and our health to find harmony.  As Shaun Matthews says … ‘in the end it’s all about the art of living a life well lived, a life that feels complete and whole.’ For us as practitioners and students of yoga the idea of moving towards that which is ‘complete and whole’ is very familiar.

 

Steps towards healing the past

 

The wounds inflicted upon Aboriginal culture in the last 230 years have been enormous and it is easy to feel that healing is impossible or that change cannot happen.  But from small acts of change; profound change can be nurtured.  The following suggestion could be a beginning:

 

  • Have a representation of Aboriginal culture in schools that is historically honest and culturally sensitive. Education delivered in the right way can break down prejudice.  An HSC syllabus does exist in Aboriginal Studies, but at the moment it is optional.

  • Review our National Anthem. Aboriginal people were neither new to these lands or free when it was written and perhaps an anthem that reflects reconciliation would be more appropriate moving forward.

  • Change the date of Australia Day. Invasion should not be celebrated.

 

Bulwalwanga Ran Festival is held in Milton Showgrounds, Milton NSW.  The festival includes a full program of guest speakers, in-depth workshops, kids tent, nutritious Ayurvedic food and Bush Tucker, festival shop, dancing and fire ritual.  Camping opportunities on the festival site are available.  www.bulwalwangaran.com.au

 

Katie Manitsas is director of Everyday Sadhana Yoga and Ayurveda in Sydney’s Redfern which is home to a large urban Aboriginal Community.  She offers Advanced Yoga Teacher Training programs as well as a Yoga and Ayurveda Training which honours Australian Indigenous Wisdom. Details can be found at  www.EverydaySadhana.com.au    

 

If this topic interests you here is another piece I wrote for Australian Yoga Journal a few months ago:

The ancient philosophies of yoga and those of Aboriginal Spirituality have a great deal in common. Both emphasise, over and over again, the interconnection between all living beings and our connection to our environment, as well as a responsibility to care for the land we live on.

 

In a yoga asana practice we look for symmetry and balance through the physical form of the body. Through this exploration of the physical form we gain knowledge of connection, on many levels. We also in time come to know a deep respect for ourselves, and ultimately for all other beings. This idea of respect is also integral to Indigenous spiritual teachings. In his book ‘Treading Lightly; the Hidden Wisdom of the World’s Oldest People’ Karl Sveiby comments on the Nhunggaburra People (who originate from Lightening Ridge in outback New South Wales), saying,

 

‘Nhunggaburra laws are summarized by a single word: ‘respect’. Rarely do we regard respect in the Nhunggaburra terms: as a powerful means to create symmetry, balance, empathy and positive relationships between individuals and the land.’

 

The Nhunggaburra People have a system of political democracy which deemphasises centralised structures of power, instead focusing on collective intention and listening. This type of deep listening – listening to each other, listening to the land, listening to the trees and the ocean are exactly what we strive for in yoga. Deep listening is Nada Yoga – the yoga of sound vibration. We practice Nada through chanting, becoming receptive and through some pranayama techniques. The methods of the yogi may be different to those of the Nhunggaburra but the intention to listen deeply is the same.

 

‘Let’s listen. Do you hear the wind in the trees? The water on the beach? The splash of the fish? That is the wind, the trees, the water, the sand, the fish talking to us. They have their own language. Sometimes they are sending a message to us.’ Laklak Burarrwanga (Datiwuy Aboriginal Elder and author of the book ‘Welcome to My Country’).

In the very first of the Yoga Sutra from the great yogic sage Patanjali we are reminded that the essential nature within all of life will be your teacher — Patanjali uses the word ‘anushasanam’ which means, ‘nature will teach you. The wisdom that you need is all around you in the very forms of nature.’ We replicate these forms in asana practice by becoming the tree, the snake, the eagle and the mountain in order to better understand them.

 

In his Yoga Sutra’s Patanjali also gives us some guidance on how to live our lives. He offers eight ethical directives through which we might realize true Yoga or union with the divine. Of these eight, three are particularly important when we come to consider the relationship of non-indigenous and Indigenous Australians. These three are Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truth) and Asteya (not stealing). Each of these teachings has been violated by non-indigenous settlers in their actions towards Aboriginal peoples and the repercussions of those violations continues today.

 

Many mis-truths were told to justify white man’s dominance of Australia and violence towards the Aboriginal people. Lies about how many Indigenous people were here, about their behavior and lies about what white man did when he arrived (in order create a ‘history’ that was palatable, even if it was not true).

 

Through violence land was stolen from Indigenous peoples who had lived on it peacefully for millennia (many anthropologists cite Aboriginal peoples as among the oldest on earth). Asteya or non-stealing was violated again in the midst of the lies and violence on which contemporary Australia was founded when another policy was developed in relation to Aboriginal people. This policy was the opposite of the yama of asteya. It was that Aboriginal children should be removed from their parents in order to bring them up in ‘civilised society’. The emotional wounds from so-called ‘stolen generation’ are only now becoming openly discussed and acknowledged. How can we even begin to think about healing such deep wounds? One insightful suggestion comes from Sydney based yoga teacher and Indigenous Rights Lawyer, Samantha Nolan-Smith who says ‘I encourage you to reverse the tide of history and stop asking the question that well meaning white people have asked for 200 years, which is “what can we teach them”, but ask instead, “what might I learn from them?” One of the things that I think you will discover in asking this question is that the ethical framework by which we lead our lives as yogis, has many similarities with the belief systems and ethical frameworks of Aboriginal Australians.’

 

As yoga practitioners we might also reflect on the idea of responsibility and karma. The ancient Indian language of Sanskrit which in which many of the scriptures and teachings of yoga were originally written does not have a word that directly translates as ‘guilt’. From this we can surmise that the idea of blame and guilt is not really a paradigm that reflects the yogic way of thinking. While in our culture the much anticipated apology given to Indigenous Australia, and particularly the ‘stolen generation’ from the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008 was important, yogic philosophy might ask not so much for a ‘sorry’ but would be more inclined to ask questions about what lessons have been learned and how we might avoid future suffering. This is not to say that apologizing is not important – just that the nature of apology is in itself quite at odds with the idea of karma. The teachings of karma state that what we do to another we do to ourselves, and that ultimately it is we ourselves who will have to heal the damage done by our harmful actions.

 

Perhaps one area in which we can begin this journey of healing is in an intention to heal our relationship with the land. As the guardians of much of Australian’s land mass us white folk are not doing such a great job of caring for the environment, the forests and the earth.   From logging in Tasmania to mining in Western Australia we are leaving deep scars across our nation affecting the waters, the skies and the earth herself. If all of us, aboriginal and non-aboriginal were able to come together in taking responsibility for healing our relationship to our environment perhaps we could begin to take small steps towards healing our relationships with all ancestors.

 

Sometimes when we look at the cultural problems and the legacy of stolen land, the violent past with which the nation of Australia was born and the many lies and violations of Indigenous rights which have taken place it is challenging to see a positive way forward where reconciliation can take place. But yoga teaches us that it is never too late for healing to happen. There is no power greater than the power of ahimsa, non-violence, and there is nothing that can generate that power more profoundly that our collective intention. The word ‘Satsang’ in Sanskrit means ‘to come together in truth’ and describes a community connection with an intention of mutual upliftment and benevolence. Our challenge here in Australia is to seek our Satsang with all members of our communities and to acknowledge honestly the pain and suffering in our past, whilst doing all we can to make choices moving into the future which minimize the potential for the same suffering to arise again. One way in which this can happen is through collaboration of indigenous communities and non-indigenous communities whether in the arts, in the workplace or in policy and decision making on a political level. Another way is through acknowledgement and respect of Aboriginal culture and heritage as a rich part of our collective histories. One example of many here comes from yoga teacher and playwright Rachael Coopes. Coopes recently wrote and appeared in the successful play ‘Sugarland’ at the Australian Theatre for Young People in Sydney which included a focus on Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. The production received a positive response from audiences and reviewers. In one review the Sydney Morning Herald echoes all of our hopes for the future ‘ultimately emerging from a troubling picture is an affirmative tale of bonding, [with the] ability to illuminate how similarities between blacks and whites eclipse differences’.

 

Blessings to the land meditation

Find a comfortable sitting position for meditation. Repeat the following words, pausing with time to reflect after each statement.

‘Peace be before me

Peace be behind me

Peace be within me

Peace be in the sky

Peace be in the earth

Peace be in the water

Peace be in the trees

Peace be with my brothers

Peace be with my sisters

Peace be with the animals

Peace be with the fish

Peace be before me

Peace be behind me

Peace be within me’

Acknowledgement of country  

One way in which we as yogis and yoga teachers can heal the violence and distrust of our past here in Australia is by acknowledging the country we live, practice and teach on, every time we roll out our yoga mats. This formal ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ only takes a moment and would be a beautiful intention to set at the beginning of every yoga class whether said outloud or as a silent prayer. An ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ can be done by everyone, Indigenous or non-Indigenous, to pay respect to the fact that we are on Aboriginal land. A simple acknowledgement of country is worded like this:  ‘I would like to show my respect and acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, of elders past and present, on which this yoga class takes place.’

Extract from a historic speech given on 10 December 1992, by then Prime Minister Paul Keating in Redfern Park

‘We need to open our hearts a bit. All of us. It might help if we non-Aboriginal Australians imagined ourselves dispossessed of land we have lived on for 50,000 years – and then imagined ourselves told that it had never been ours. 

Imagine if ours was the oldest culture in the world and we were told that it was worthless. Imagine if we had resisted this settlement, suffered and died in defence of our land, and then were told in history books that we had given up without a fight. Imagine if non-Aboriginal Australians had served their country in peace and war and were then ignored in history books. Imagine if our feats on sporting fields had inspired admiration and patriotism and yet did nothing to diminish prejudice. Imagine if our spiritual life was denied and ridiculed.   

Imagine if we had suffered the injustice and then were blamed for it. 

It seems to me that if we can imagine the injustice then we can imagine its opposite. And we can have justice.’

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Bhakti Rose acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognises their continuing connection to land, water and community. We pay respect to Elders past, present and emerging.

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