We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don't know.
W. H. Auden
Long before yoga emerged as one of six Hindu darshanas, and even longer before the word “yuj” was entered into the Rig Veda, civilizations have experienced strife, starvation and inequalities. The average life expectancy around the time in which the Rig Veda was compiled (1500-1200 BCE) was approximately twenty-six years. Early Hinduism relied on the rishis (“sages” or “seers”) to share the insights they received during meditations to guide the followers. Later, it became the swamis and the gurus who taught the path to attaining moksha. We live in different times now, and most certainly swamis and gurus still have an important role in not only helping the individual to attain moksha, but also to help make a big impact on global problems. To tackle global problems will require not just those who are well travelled down the pathway to liberation or those who have become enlightened, but also the rest of us are required to tip the scales to make the necessary changes. Some of us may take an active role in teaching the eight limbs of yoga in a class and others may lead by example, by taking their practice “off the mat” and living in accordance the yamas and niyamas.
This essay begins with a discussion about accepting the reality that, while the time in which we live may seem bleak, statistically speaking, this is the best time ever to have lived as a human. I will then examine the core issues facing the world today and how the modern yogi and yogini can help to make positive changes by being becoming aware of the issues, taking action and being an exemplar of living a life that is the embodiment of peace, honesty, respect, fairness and balance; in other words, becoming a “yamic leader.” As the quote by Auden so perfectly states, “We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don’t know”.
While speaking to the United Nations in 2014, then President, Barak Obama, declared, “This is the best time in human history to be born, for you are more likely than ever before to be literate, to be healthy, and to be free to pursue your dreams". By almost all measures, he was, and still is, correct. Thanks to the development of vaccines and better access to clean drinking water, childhood mortality rates have plummeted all over the world. The childhood mortality rates and average life expectancy in many countries in Africa and other parts of the world, however, are still at unacceptable levels when compared with the rest of the world.
Is there inequality? Yes. Are wars still fought? Yes. Is there disproportional food scarcity? Yes. If you watch the news, it may seem that all measures of health, happiness and safety are lower than ever, but they actually are not. Compare the casualties of the Russian Civil War (1917-1922) and the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949). Each of these conflicts saw losses of life close to ten million people. By contrast, the War on Terror which began after September 11, 2001 has seen losses of approximately 1.2 million lives. Of course, any untimely and unexpected loss of life is unacceptable. Clearly, we still have major problems in the world, and some new ones we have created such as global warming, but in Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, he points out that while the vast majority of people in developed nations report that the world is getting worse, the data simply does not support this assertion. As Pinker puts it, “This bleak assessment of the state of the world is wrong — and not just a little wrong but wrong…wrong, flat-earth wrong”.
Part of the problem is when elected leaders describe the current state of affairs as bleak and scary and implore their citizens to be wary of people who don’t look like them or don’t believe in the same things as them, mass paranoia and pessimism begin to bubble up. Over the last fifty years in the United States and Canada, poverty levels are down, almost all health measures are up, literacy is up and overall violent crimes are down. An article written by Doug Saunders in the Globe and Mail in March 2018 is titled, “Violent crime has faded in our cities, replaced by fear and distrust.” In the article, Saunders provides statistics to show how, in major cities in Canada and the United States, there have been precipitous drops in violent crimes. Curiously, while the stats show improvements, the public perception and attitude does not align. As Saunders puts it, “Yet this has not brought about an era of urban peace and harmony. These same years have seen explosions of fear, anger, mass protest and distrust expressed by urban residents, especially those of minority backgrounds”.
Of course, there are some major problems in the world which can’t be ignored. In spite of most data showing many areas of global improvement, serious problems remain. According to the United Nations website on Global Issues, some of the most pressing issues are: food scarcity, global warming, refugee migration, gender equality, human rights, poverty, peace and security. It is a daunting list of problems and it would be easy to think that the acts of one person or an organized group cannot make change, but as already mentioned in this article, many positive changes have already been made by groups of people. All change begins with having an awareness and then being optimistic about the ability to make change. Through actions of people, according to the United Nations website, “New HIV infections have fallen by 35% since 2000 (by 58% among children) and AIDS-related deaths have fallen by 42% since the peak in 2004”. The same site also states that global poverty rates (those living on less than $1.90 USD per day) have been “cut by half since 2000”. These positive changes started with awareness of the problem and a belief that that they could be ameliorated.
The problem with awareness can be where we are getting the information. Many news outlets know that sensationalism sells. We must be discerning about the sources of information. Related to this point is the issue of gun-related deaths in the United States and Canada. It may surprise you to know that in spite of the focus on the horrifying mass shootings, most gun violence death is due to suicide (60% according to the Center for Disease Control in the United States). In Canada, the percentage of gun violence deaths related to suicide is 75%. If we are unaware of the fact, we cannot effectively help. Once we have awareness on an issue, we must believe we can make a change. Our minds create reality. If we believe everything is hopeless, we may start leaning towards nihilism and then we are in serious trouble. There are some troubling statistics on rising rates of depression — especially among teenagers — we should be aware of: on average (data from Blue Cross Blue Shield) depression rates have risen 33 percent since 2013 and the largest jump is in the 12-17 year-old group rising 63%. In Canada, similar trends of rising depression rates — especially in teenaged girls — are dramatically on the rise. The World Health Organization (WHO) lists depression as the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. The WHO says there are more than 300 million people suffering with depression worldwide.
So, it begs the question, “If the world is a better place, statistically speaking, why the dramatic rise in depression and high rates of suicide?” It is difficult to understand. The causes of depression are complex and may include: genetics, brain chemistry, past trauma, abuse, some medications and addictions. There also appears to be a relationship between depression and feelings of loneliness. A recent survey, conducted with 20,000 people in the United States, found that people who are part of Generation Z, (the post-millennial generation) have the highest rates of loneliness — even higher than that of seniors. In fact, in this same study, the least lonely group were those older than seventy-two. It may seem ironic that the generation who was born connected to the internet and the World Wide Web is the loneliest. Perhaps the fact that we are social beings and the vast majority of communication in the Generation Z group is through texting and social media apps has something to do with it. It has been shown in numerous studies that face-to-face communication is what helps to ward off depression by producing hormones such as oxytocin and dopamine. Later in this essay, I will lay out why I think the greatest area of opportunity for yogis and yoginis is in helping those suffering from depression and anxiety related disorders.
At the source of every problem in the world is a human. Whether it is poverty, starvation, global warming, war, or gender inequality, a person or a group of people are to blame. When you examine the global issues more carefully, you could argue that human qualities of greed, dominance, control, power, lack of empathy and lack of compassion are at the core of the problems with the leadership. If you were to think of a person or a group of people with those qualities you might see that this kind of person has some characteristics of narcissism, antisocial personality disorders or borderline personality disorders. While it might seem like a stretch to say that all global problems are the result of psychopathic leaders; it may not be so crazy. Look at the history of ruthless dictators from Pol Pot to Adolph Hitler to Joseph Stalin. Each of these leaders have been posthumously diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorders – they were psychopaths.
Narcissistic personality disorders are characterized by an exaggerated sense of self-importance and a lack of empathy. People with these types of disorders could partially explain genocides, wars, lack of equality and lack of human rights but what about other human-caused, global issues such as global warming? According to Jon Ronson, author of New York Times bestseller The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry,while psychopaths make up approximately one percent of the general population, they make-up at least four percent of CEOs and leaders of major industry. A “psychopath” is a diagnosis of a personality disorder characterized by antisocial behavior, lack of empathy and remorse and it is often used interchangeably with narcissist. So, if a psychopath (narcissist) is running a corporation and he/she does not have empathy or remorse and does not care about anything that does not satisfy themselves and shareholders then you can see that concerns about the environment are going to be non-existent.
So, in answer to the question in the title of this essay, “What Can Yoga Offer to Assist the Global Challenges of this Era?” the answer is…a lot. I will now focus on the two main areas I think the modern-day yogi and yogini can make the most profound changes: 1. Participation in peaceful protests against despotic leadership or/and 2. Helping those suffering from depression and anxiety by sharing the practices of yoga. All change must begin from within. We must first become aware of our own short-comings in our own practices. Whether you are working towards enlightenment through Raja Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Karma Yoga, or Tantric Yoga, if your practice is irregular or inauthentic it will be difficult to inspire change in others. By practicing what the sages, rishis, swamis and gurus laid out as pathways to enlightenment, we can become lights of leadership. This does not necessarily mean that we must lead by assembling masses of people — but it might; leadership can also be a demonstration of what it means to practice all aspects of yoga on a pathway to enlightenment. This kind of leadership might be assisting one person onto the pathway.
Peaceful Awareness and Action
It is my conjecture that most, if not all, serious global issues are caused by humans who were/are inspired by psychopathic leaders. We must work to replace this kind of leadership with intelligent leaders who embody peace, honesty, respect, fairnes, and balance — a “yamic leadership”. Removing despotic leaders is a challenging thing to do and usually involves conflict but, as history has shown, when masses of people are inspired to rise-up and demonstrate through peaceful actions, change does happen. The suffragette march in 1913 and Martin Luther King’s march in 1963 ‚— both in Washington DC — were peaceful rallies causing massive changes in women’s rights and racial equality. Gandhi’s salt march in 1930 was another example of peaceful protesting which eventually led to India gaining its freedom. A yogi or yogini may identify a problem that is close to them in proximity or close to them in a more heart-centered way. Maybe you have an example of a global problem right in your backyard? In every community in Canada and the United States, and all countries around the world, there are examples of global issues such as poverty, homelessness, inequality, domestic abuse, addictions and food scarcity.
One could start with becoming aware of the global issues in your backyard and then, with a sense of optimism, take steps to make change. You may not be the type of person who will organize a local rally to take to the streets but, if you are, that can be a highly effective tool to spread awareness. We live in an amazing era where we have access to technology that gives us an electronic platform to reach massive numbers of people. Maybe you are better suited to social media campaigns of raising awareness. Once we have awareness about a global issue either in our backyard or in other parts of the world, we have the opportunity to make change — we can take action. Action comes in many forms from invoking democratic rights of election (electing yamic leaders) to fund raising to more hands-on action like construction or making food or sewing. Your skill set will largely determine your awareness campaign and your action. No matter how big or small your campaign, know that you are making a positive change.
Assisting Those Suffering with Depression and Anxiety
As already described in this essay, depression, anxiety and suicide rates are on the rise. I outlined a possible link to social isolation or loneliness and that the most lonely group is the group with highest rates of depression — the youth. While awareness and action campaigns were described above for global issues such as poverty, homelessness, food scarcity, global warming, inequality and domestic abuse, assisting with those suffering from depression and anxiety is something you already have awareness about. Either you have experienced depression and anxiety or you know someone who has. Recall that the WHO says that depression is the leading cause of illness and disability worldwide. The number one reason for suicide is depression. If we are going to make global changes, we need a healthy population to assist with the heavy lifting of change making. In a recent health survey in Canada, 11% of the population between the ages of 15-24 reported suffering from depression requiring medical treatment and the second leading cause of death in this age group was suicide.
Perhaps participating in activism with global issues such as poverty or homelessness did not resonate with you; activism to assist those suffering with depression and anxiety should because if trends continue, we won’t have the healthy masses to make the changes. The good news here is that, since you are reading this article, you likely are already doing something which has been shown to dramatically help with depression and anxiety — yoga. I am not just talking about anecdotal reports. There are reams of studies published in some reputable, peer-reviewed journals showing objective improvements in people suffering from depression and anxiety when practicing yoga. In some of the studies, they actually delineate the different aspects of yoga and whether they studied: asana, pranayama, dhyana or some combination such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). There are improvements over control groups and, in some studies, improvements over pharmaceuticals. We also must not discount some of the intangible benefits of a yoga class such as creating the sense of community and face to face interaction. It seems that the younger generation may need this more than any other generation.
While there does not appear to be any cure or effective treatment for adult psychopathy, there does appear to be effective treatment of juvenile psychopathic tendencies. A meta-analysis of mindfulness techniques (mindful movements, vipassana, mindful meditations) in an article titled, “Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Young Offenders: A Scoping Review” published in the October 2018 edition of Mindfulness concluded, “Studies found some improvement in various measures of mental health, self-regulation, problematic behaviour, substance use, quality of life and criminal propensity”. Perhaps yoga can be a tool to assist our youth in modifying behaviours before they become intractable, adult psychopathic traits.
In this essay I have pointed to research which shows that the world is a better place by almost all markers compared to any point in history. There are however some things that are not better and in fact getting worse — depression, anxiety and suicide rates among the youth. It is my opinion that one of the greatest global problems facing our planet at this time is the dramatic increase in rates of depression, anxiety and suicide in the youth. In addition, I have described how all global problems are human problems and at the source is often leadership with narcissistic traits. Fortunately, as yogis and yoginis we have been shown a path that not only can lead to our personal enlightenment but can, in fact, assist with global problems. I have suggested that activism to replace narcissistic leaders with yamic leadership is important but also to become yamic leaders ourselves and in areas which we identify as problems, create awareness and make change.
Those who have practiced yoga know of the benefits as the body, mind, and spirited become yoked together. We now know through scientific studies that aspects of yoga such as the asana, pranayama, and dhyana have been shown to assist with feelings of loneliness and we also know the mechanisms by which these practices change structures in the brain and affect hormones related to chronic states of stress. We needn’t be zealots but gently lead by example to sensitively assist those suffering from depression and anxiety by showing them a pathway which we know can help ameliorate the biggest problem facing our planet today.