Now that Juneteenth (June 19th) is a US Federal holiday we can use this opportunity to not only learn about a part of US history that was not always taught but to apply the "liberation theology" of traditional Yoga practices as a metaphor to describe that history in another way.
If you possess a passing familiarity with Patanjali's Yoga Sutras you may remember the "8 Limbs" (Ashta Anga, or Ashtanga) of this philosophy (not the only method of yogic practice): Yama and Niyama, the first two limbs, could be considered the "Ten Commandments" of yoga as they describe the the moral, ethical, and basic daily practices that make one suitable for learning the other 6. Hatha Yoga, which may be rooted in Shaivite or other spiritual/religious practices, takes these Yamas and Niyamas to be a given and may name them in different orders of prominence - for example, Patanjali lists Ahimsa (non harming) as first of the Yamas while Gandhi considered Satya (Truth) to be the first and most important. Shantideva, a Buddhist saint, once said that if the Truth would cause harm one should keep the mouth shut. Ašteya (not stealing) can be applied not only to possessions but to the emotional peace of those with whom we interact which should negate any claims of one group of people to the right to enslave another group of people. While Brahmacharya is often (incorrectly) translated as "celibacy" its root language refers to "walking with God" and is also one of the stages of the human lifecycle, brahmacharya referring to the stage of a young one's life where they are meant to concentrate on learning so they can become a fit husband or wife as well as a productive citizen in their community. Aparigraha (non grasping, non seizing) refers to the deliberate cultivation of non attachment to things, especially things which are not so important in the grand scheme of things.
The limbs that follow the ethical and moral precepts then could be construed to follow in a natural progression: the physical practice (Asana) balances the physical body, the breath practices (Pranayama) begin to balance the energy in the body (and there is now scientific evidence of how changing our breathing patterns can have an effect on our health from lowering blood pressure to helping us manage anxiety. Learning how to turn our attention away from distractions (Pratyahara) helps prepare us concentrating fully on an object or topic (Dharana) which prepares us to meditate (Dhyana) which then leads to liberation (Samadhi).
One fuller examination of the Yamas and Niyamas appears on Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niyama
How can one achieve liberation when the knowledge of one's enslavement is not evident? The practice of traditional Yoga is but one path towards eventual liberation but while some are attracted to the spiritual side of the original practice others prefer to use the physical practice to free their bodies from the pain caused by structural issues or previous injuries that may prevent a full appreciation of life. Some fear anything labeled "yoga" because they think they are too old or too stiff, or that it's a religion that would interfere with their spiritual advancement within their preferred tradition. How does this relate to our new national holiday?
June 19th was the day that enslaved Africans learned that President Lincoln had made them free; their enslavers may have known much sooner about the Emancipation Declaration and withheld that knowledge knowing the truth would eventually become known and fearing what would happen. The enslaver and the enslaved were both enslaved, one by fear of those they abused and by their own attachment to the power they held and the other by the ignorance that the political winds were shifting in their favor as the North fought the South's treasonous secession. Many whites are STILL enslaved to their presumed superiority over those with darker skin and willfully remain ignorant of the benefits of freeing themselves of their heavy chains. Black people are weary of the horrendous treatment still being inflicted on their communities by police (our style of policing has disturbing roots in the old "slave patrols" of the Deep South" and are no longer remaining silent even in the most dangerous days of the COVID pandemic, marching daily with their allies after the open murder of George Floyd which was recorded by a courageous young woman and widely disseminated. While the officer responsible was convicted and will spend a long time in jail this was not the end of abusive police treatment; Black people still are enslaved to the fear that they might be next just for having a broken tail light or for having dated someone who had already been arrested for a crime.
This Juneteenth will first be about teaching and learning about what this day symbolizes to those celebrating the declaration of an end to chattel slavery. From this day on, let it be about continuing to liberate all of us from beliefs that keep us from eliminating inequities in our government, policing, economics, education, and every other institution - things that perpetuate White privilege and supremacy (this doesn't mean that all White people are rich or privileged or that all Black people are poor and disadvantaged). For the United States of America to live up to the promises made in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence every citizen must remember what comedian Stephen Colbert once said: that we have two ears and only one mouth; let's act accordingly.
To amplify a Black voice crying in the wilderness that passes for discourse in our diverse and divided nation, read this excellent piece by L. A. Justice in Medium, here is a small observation:
"Legalizing Juneteenth as a national holiday does nothing to bring about any type of racial justice to the Black community, or racial harmony to this country, in the same way that the signing of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day did not."
Back when I taught Yoga to university students I would use examples of ordinary everyday topics to illustrate how the Yamas and Niyamas (the first two limbs of Patanjali's 8 Limbed Path). With this post I hope to use the analogy of cultivating balance in our bodies to the topic of striving for a balanced and equitable democratic society.
There has been a great deal of discussion surrounding White Privilege, systemic racism, and other barriers to full participation in what is purported to be a democratic republic. The ideals of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution have not always been upheld for all citizens (to put it mildly) and in many cases ignored or subverted in ways that White people may not notice (as we have often grown up in rather insulated fashion) but which are all too apparent to Black, Brown, Asian, and Indigenous people.
If we think of our nation as a body, we must consider the health of the entire body as being supported by the health and maintenance of each individual component of it. If we only care about our outward appearance but neglect our digestive health we may find that over time our outward appearance begins to show that neglect. For example, if we only eat toxic food our tissues will eventually break down as they don't have the nutrients needed for repair. Once we begin eating healthful nutritious foods again we can notice ourselves looking and feeling better.
If we consider our nation as being represented by our legs, with one leg being much stronger than the other we may not notice for a while how we favor using that dominant leg until we injure the weaker leg or the muscular imbalance causes an injury elsewhere in the body because of the unequal stresses placed on it. Only by strengthening the weaker leg until both legs are equally strong can we reduce the potential for an injury due to an imbalance between the two.
A couple hundred years ago the leader of the Bahai'i Faith used the analogy of the wings of a bird, one wing representing men and the other women: "The world of humanity is possessed of two wings: the male and the female. So long as these two wings are not equivalent in strength, the bird will not fly. Until womankind reaches the same degree as man, until she enjoys the same arena of activity, extraordinary attainment for humanity will not be realized; humanity cannot wing its way to heights of real attainment.".
Extending this analogy to encompass the human body as a metaphor for the various communities in the US, only when we strive to support the health of all of our various people (Black, White, Indigenous, poor, middle class etc) can we as a nation become a truly strong and healthy democratic republic that truly lives up to its promise.
The unrest and division our nation is experiencing is our "body" experiencing symptoms of an illness or disease that must be addressed if we want to survive as a nation. First we must attune ourselves to the messages our struggling body is sending us, then we must strive to act on those messages in order to create and maintain a balance of power and avoid allowing one group to abuse their imbalance of power.