March 29, 2011

Yoga Culture’s Response to Japan’s Earthquake: 5 Reactions

by Matthew Remski with Scott Petrie

The abject destruction we witness in Japan releases a flood of trauma, responses to trauma, and strategies of consolation and healing. We’ve spent the last two weeks watching this outpouring specifically within yoga culture, through personal, group, and social media interaction. We’ve watched the catastrophe expose our values, worldviews, and hopes with great clarity. We present our observations here, along with what we consider their implications to be, in the hope of encouraging reflection about effective and authentic responses that both honour the spectrum of human experience and empower embodied action.


We’ve seen five broad categories of response to the catastrophe that, while perhaps not unique to yoga culture, have certainly been prominent within it. The first is simple witnessing. The second attempts to marshal personal and collective wishes or prayers as a healing force for self, other, and planet. The third category is interested in rationalizing the event through narratives of meaning and wisdom: “it’s all for the best”, or “this helps us to learn the difference between pain and suffering”, or “this shows us that we cannot know how Grace will unfold”. The fourth seeks to connect this catastrophe to a string of other unrelated tragedies, and then take the whole sequence as verification for a subjective sense of apocalyptic crisis. The fifth eschews prayer and the construction of either positive or negative meanings to focus on blankets and food.

Of course, some yogis will only utilize one response, some will use several, and many will blend all five responses in their action and communication, even within the same hour. Nonetheless, it might be helpful to consider each separately, so that we can investigate the subconscious elements they may conceal, and which elements really encourage the flow of empathy.

Bearing Witness

The body registers it first. The news hits the gut. In the first few moments of exposure to the images, the observing body itself feels like a wave, a whirlpool, a boat thrown into the sky, a house crushed. The observing body is instantly a drowning body, a smashed body, a body ripped into the deep, and then ripped apart.

You tear your eyes from the screen and meet the eyes of your spouse, or a stranger in the bar. Your body, mirroring images of destruction, begins to mirror their body, mirroring destruction. You each reflect the other, and vibrate with a nascent empathy. Very few words will pass between you: “Wow.” “My God.” “Look at that.” “I can’t believe it.” The communication is phatic: no content is transmitted. The communicants simply share the process of digesting horror.

For hours or even days afterwards, the witness connects with others in non-verbal shared moments of existential recognition. We are so fragile. The parent clutches the child more closely. Food tastes essential. Colours are bright. Banality lifts, because existence suddenly seems so strange, so unlikely. We are so fragile. Hold me.

The stage of bearing witness begins to dissolve when the shocked body is not soothed by immediate action, and the mind begins to desire and then create various consolations.


Prayer in the context of trauma begins with an exclamation of raw pain: “My God…”, or “Good Lord…”. But hailing the abject with a divine name also stirs a primal wish: that the call of the flesh be heard by the vast world and sky. It is like the moment at which the infant stops crying out of simple hunger-pain, and begins intentionally crying for the mother to come and console her. This worked for most of us, and it imprinted us with the conviction that our wishes might simply be fulfilled by the natural order of things.

But from the expression of pain to the plea for attention, prayer develops a complex repertoire of requests and offerings of appeasement. “Please help us”. “Don’t punish us”. “We will serve you.” “We repent.” “We promise to be good.”

On March 12, a Facebook friend in the yoga community posted an aerial picture of an enormous whirlpool in Sendai harbour. Her status update above the photo said: “Maa, be gentle with us…”. This prayer sits right on the edge of the exclamatory and the petitionary. The first syllable is primal: the first word we speak, inverse of om, a cry in the night. But the full request gives birth to an entire cosmology, fully grown.

Who is Maa, and what is she doing to us?

Maa is the earth, anthropomorphized through the language of Hindu devotion. Maa is wrathful, Maa is chastising us, Maa is reorganizing reality for a benefit we can’t understand, Maa is teaching sternly, Maa is crushing our egos, Maa is destroying our pride, Maa is showing us the conjunction of life and death. Speak to Maa, call her by name – she will listen to those who show they are understanding her lessons.

There’s a lot going on in here: a request for help and relief, visions of punishment, assumptions of guilt: all wrapped in the regression-feeling that an appeasing attitude might alter inexorable action. In this prayer, the parent-child relationship is reasserted, with the child at the centre of the whirlpool – the parental universe. The good self is proffered. The bad self is confessed and surrendered. This is the prayer of rocking oneself to sleep in the shadow of a God who you plead with, and who may never answer. Are we to blame if she doesn’t?


The next day, someone else linked to a youtube clip of a simple animation of a nuclear reactor. The clip was posted by “Adam DreamHealer”, who narrates on top of the film: “We all have to focus our energies on the Japanese nuclear reactors…. Your participation in this visualization is one way of creating a positive outcome to this dire situation.” The animation rolls on, providing a visual focus for the attention of the supplicant.


Leaving aside the questions of whether or not this constitutes magical thinking (my positive and cooling thoughts can impact a nuclear core meltdown 5000 miles away, even though my positive and cooling thoughts have never prevented me from burning my toast), what is interesting about this initiative from a yogic perspective is its tantric aesthetics and subtext. No one familiar with tantric visualizations (especially their representations through the publications and posters of the Bihar School, etc.) would miss the suggestion here: that the nuclear plant is internal to your body, that your breath and plasma elide with the coolant system, that the reactor chamber is the home of agni, or a volatile manipura chakra. The meditation cartoon has an aesthetic that can apply as suitably to Fukushima or to the nadis and prana.

This is the reduction ad absurdum of yat pinde tat brahmande: as without, so within. It is a reasonable sentiment for the disempowered and despairing – what else can one do but offer up one’s body for internal alchemy, when it seems that you cannot help in any other way?

But do nuclear meltdowns have internal solutions?


Bearing witness shocks the body into recognition. Prayer is the rise of desire in response to the limbic alarm. Then what? How can we act?

In a mediated world, the connection between witness and activity is obscured and delayed as the ironic result of the speed of communication. The space between our bodies and Japan on March 11th is collapsed by the satellite stream. The speed seems to bloat our sense of helplessness. We not only have instant contact with the event, but instant recognition of our paralysis and disembodiment. The wish of metaphysics pours easily into the stunned somatic gap.

We’ve seen many nonmaterial explanations for the catastrophe over the past two weeks. They share two qualities: they use metaphysics to speak to physics, and they assume that human meanings are germane to the unfolding of geological time. These two qualities colour John Friend’s interview on bayshakti.com, a few days after the tsunami, in which his renown combines with videoblog technology to offer a teachable moment to the yoga world.

Firstly, this is good for yoga culture: we see a mentor asked for philosophical insight into a major world event. He’s actually being treated like a yogi: someone whose insights into the personal self are resonant with the nature of the shared self. Friend has clearly facilitated an environment in which the questions can be discussed. It’s a hard job, and he is not shy to step into the flow.

Friend is asked how yogis can make sense of the catastrophe. He’s up-front that his expertise is neither as a geologist nor as a nuclear scientist. Rather, his task is to speak about how his philosophy can absorb such an event. He is asked to reassure his students that things still make sense, and that the overall arc of existence is still indeed blissful, and filled with grace from above, or within.


But a certain strain floats over the set: it’s very hard to sit for 30 minutes in front of a camera and speak abstractly during an unfolding tragedy, while others are collecting blankets and food. Both Friend and his interviewer seem a little stiff. Metaphysics seems to pin their bodies to their chairs like butterflies to mounting boards. Perhaps neither of them really want to be there. Grace demands metaphysical defense, but does this come at the price of pausing palpable action?  No body would be comfortable with that.

Friend rises to his task, using his updated interpretation of tantric univeralism to hit the main claims: we must recognize the difference between human versus cosmic time, the difference between pain and suffering, and the ultimate beneficence of karma in teaching you exactly what you need to know at any given moment in your timeless journey.

The shoot is a paradox: its main purpose cannot aid people who are suffering directly from the catastrophe, but can aid people who are suffering because their worldview might be challenged by the catastrophe. In a way, the interview is not really about Japan. It is about how a metaphysical ideal can and must outlast every Japanese tsunami the world of maya throws at it.

But the body will reassert itself, despite every abstraction. When their interview ends, John and his interviewer will unclip their mics, stand up, hug, stretch, shake off the fog of the tv lights, and resume their daily business of caring for others and business communications and eating and self-care. The pragmatic will displace the metaphysical, and their bodies will know what to do, and will act simply, empty of speculation, as naturally as the bodies of Japanese Red Cross workers. They may move through less dramatic landscapes of human desperation. Yet they will move.

Sure enough, within a few days, the San Francisco Anusara community started to organize an enormous bake sale for April 2nd. The idea has swept the U.S. Upwards of 50 Anusara-linked bakeries and community organizations across the country will be baking, selling, and donating. Bodies (inspired and renewed by asana, perhaps) will be in action.

Pondering the Why will only burn the cookies.



This view is the shadow of Rationalization. It promotes the idea that the catastrophe in Japan is part of the hurtling narrative of end-times. There are many examples of this, but a very clear one comes from Elephant Journal’s Waylon Lewis, who posted a piece that listed the tsunami, the Lululemon murder, the war in Libya, and civilian executions in Bahrain as a preamble to Chogyam Trungpa commenting on the Mahamudra Sadhana, an eschatological fantasy about the power of spiritual practice in an era of corruption.

If we leave aside the question of whether this post confuses the expression of empathy-exhaustion with a fictional linkage between these events, this response is a welcome acknowledgement of the emotional stresses that a hyper-connected and sensitive reader will experience on any given day. As such, it appeals for the soberest intentions.

In the context of tantra, the energy of apocalypticism is valued as a personaly transformative current: a strong emotion that can be turned upon oneself to produce intense passion for life. The death of the planet and the fading of the dharma means that time is running out for you to achieve your spiritual goals.

But does the language of end-times encourage the most conscious action? Is it helpful to public policy? Are we so distant from our own bodily mortality that we need to be terrified by 2012 and Kaliyuga to get on with our work?

And anyway: is apocalypse true? Does anything ever come to an end? Does apocalypse simply make the historical insignificance of our individual lives a little more easy to bear? Is apocalypse the necessary shadow of the ideal of enlightenment? Is apocalypse the fantasy of those who wish the slate could be wiped clean?

All available evidence suggests that that time expresses two rules: 1) no startovers; 2) no endings.

Embodied Action

Amidst the body shock, the prayer, the rationalizations and their shadows, yogis start organizing fundraisers. They research aid organizations. Some start googling flights to Tokyo to see if they can go and lead asana classes to relieve disaster workers.

They also turn their attention locally. Within days of the Fukushima distress, petitions against nuclear energy began to circulate. Other yogis responded with nuclear pragmatism. Healthy debate ensued over the ethics and safety of various modes of power production.

Other yogis looked at disaster preparedness, and began campaigns for stronger nuclear oversight.

Still others reach for the muffin recipes. There’s probably a bunch of phone calls to mothers, asking about some forgotten ingredient.


Perhaps these five responses are not the choices of distinct worldviews, but rather developmental stages through which we slide down through layers of cognitive cloud-cover to sink into the authentic.

Seen this way, the responses might tell a story of how the surge of horror along the sympathetic nerves (bearing witness) is translated into strategic muscular empathy (embodied action), but on the way can be distracted by traumatized consolations (prayers of appeasement, justifications, apocalypticism), that naturally resolve into results.

Bearing witness is kinetic and anti-verbal. Acting pragmatically (if sometimes blindly) from that kinesis allows the being to empathize directly. The able body can respond to the suffering body, without pausing or withdrawing to consider the invisible. If you witness the abject and then act directly, your body is immediately in communion with the event and those directly impacted.

Mirror neurons spring into action in relation to the very earth. The body rushes for help: a wave rolling over a town. The emotions swirl in the offshore whirlpool. Plans leap to mind like the Japan National Defense. The bones stand firm like a dog beside its wounded friend. There is no time for petitions. There is no time for metaphysical apologetics. There is no time for reveries of the end time. You are the dog.

Prayer rises breathlessly out the confused vacuum of the body that would act. It begins with the phatic and then complicates into appeasement. As the first emotional wave begins to flag, the thread of prayerful appeasement becomes more thoughtful and narrative. Theodicy is invoked: everything is perfect. Then comes eschatology: everything is perfectly ending. But when there is something to actually do, the muscles flex.


What about us?

Scott took the first 20 minutes of each of his twelve asana classes in that week for open processing of the emotions of the event. There were worries, tears, and anxiety. He facilitated the sharing of responses, and then let what arose begin to naturally guide the process of asana.

I spent time researching responses for this post, and workshopping these ideas with my fellow students of Ayurveda and psychotherapy. They each had deep reflections on the meanings of prayer, the application of metaphysics, their own eschatological nightmares, and the role that their bodies play in the healing of global trauma. I felt they left having co-created a rich set  of tools for helping others navigate shock and grief.


Lastly – a note about the sustainability of sentiment vs. action. It is now day 18 since the catastrophe. The strongest currently visible posture towards the event (according to our very unscientific survey) is Embodied Action. It seems that witnessing has normalized: the devastation of northern Japan is now a fact of daily life. Even prayer has become tactile through the folding of paper cranes. There are no more daily petitions for group prayer. Interest in metaphysical causes for the event seems to have waned. The apocalyptic reveries have vanished. But: yogis are continuing to join with others in fundraising efforts, and the long process of addressing our energy confusions. Karma classes are still being scheduled. Some studios have dedicated a percentage of income over the next several months to the relief effort, which they know will continue indefinitely.

It may be that prayer, justification, and apocalyptic reverie are simply unsustainable. Apocalypticism is exhausting. Rationalization might slow down the bake sales.

But public efforts and organizations of petitionary prayer are not just fatiguing. They have to disappear from public attention pretty quickly in order to preserve their power. If the prayer efforts were sustained, prayer would become testable, as in: “Do you remember that we recited x# of mantras during the Haiti earthquake, and y was the result? If we double our efforts for Japan, we’ll make twice the difference.” Petitionary prayer does not want that kind of scrutiny, because it is not a bake sale, in which eggs and flower and labour become food which becomes money which becomes an order of blankets. There are no metrics for prayer. If prayer is sustained, it can only draw attention to the fact that its benefits are mainly internal, despite its promises. It’s a reasonable early attempt at self-consolation. But its best result sends boots to the ground.

With the bake sales, the long work has begun: to connect everyday action to everyday suffering. What a wonderful sequence – that the sentiments of trauma can evolve into the work of embodied action. How edifying – that uncertainty and necessity can combine to evoke such existential nobility. How inspiring, that the body reaches out a helping hand through these veils of dreaming.

Matthew Remski is an authoryoga and ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. With Scott Petrie (who provided essential wing-man services for this piece) he is co-creator of yoga 2.0, a project in writing (one book done, eight more in the sushumna-chute) and the embodiment of all things post-dogmatic.

yoga 2.0: shamanic echoesis now available for kindle and other e-readers.

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