I’m sympathetic to the plight of immigrants. They’ve been in the news a lot lately, and many of us have watched their difficult journeys on television. Like others, I’ve noticed their sunken eyes, their thin frames, the wrinkles on their brow. They’re tired and don’t have energy to smile for the camera. Many of them are suffering post traumatic stress and face an immediate future without a home or homeland.
None of the immigrants had asked to be displaced, and I doubt if anyone looks forward to dangerous journeys over stormy seas or hostile lands. Yet in the midst of their shock and loss, I’ve observed the immigrants express thanks for the basics of food and water. Their dreams for more freedom and better social standing are beyond their immediate concerns, and some only hope to simply survive another day.
Circumstances like these force the immigrant to put central things centrally. In many cases, this means thanking God for the basic gift of life and the lives of their loved ones. The guiding aesthetic of thanks – and appreciating the most central things – can also guide the grateful yogi.
Almost all Americans are immigrants too thanks to the dangerous voyages of our parents, grandparents, or in my case great grandparents. I’m from immigrant stock, and I’m a newcomer and immigrant to yoga. My grandparents probably never heard of yoga, my parents never dreamed of doing yoga, and I’d never seen yoga until – when 21-years old – I took a trip to India.
For many of us, forays into yoga share the same motivation as that of immigrants: the search for a better life. But mine was voluntary, and I did not come into yoga as part of a desperate attempt to escape oppression and lack of opportunity.
The threat to Western lifestyles; however, is not a lack of material goods, but the peril of having too much stuff. When one has many things, including freedom and opportunity, it’s easy to get distracted and forget about putting central things centrally. But we’re learning that having too much is a burden and affluence’s dangers are well documented. Yogis are wisely returning to the basics.
The afflictions of affluence make their mark on Westerners. We have higher than normal rates of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity, and addictions. Our arteries are becoming harder and so are our hearts. Happiness is temporary and it’s difficult to find peace and quiet.
In affluent lands, an abundance of possessions is a key ingredient in the daily cocktail of worry and busyness. But the immigrant aesthetic can bring us back to the central things and teach us once again how to be grateful for life and the safety of our loved ones.
The yoga solution to the affliction of affluence is rooted in this immigrant awareness. A yogi keeping central things centrally gives thanks for each breath and makes each one deliberate and measured.
In time, the practice of deep breathing can permeate all areas of life, and each sigh can become a full expression of gratitude. These deep sighs don’t have to be aimed specifically; their cleansing work happens when the yogi breathes in with awareness and breathes out in thanks.
Years ago, I watched a television special on the “Cuban Boat People.” This was the name given to nearly 125,000 Cuban immigrants and political refugees making a dangerous exodus from the Cuban port of Mariel in 1980 to start a new life in the United States. They took a dangerous journey, sailing on fragile and overcrowded boats. Many of the boats – filled beyond capacity – sank during the 90-mile journey.
The beaches of South Florida were crowded with reporters, camera operators, and onlookers. The plight of the “Boat People,” and the question of what to do with Cuban immigrants, was a lead news story for several days.
The report of one man created a lasting impression on me when the camera showed him jumping into the water near shore, wading in and stumbling from person to person saying, “Thank-you, thank you, thank-you, thank-you,” while placing his open palms gently on their cheeks. Finally, grateful and relieved to be on solid ground, he knelt in the sand, bowed his head and wept.
As yogis, we strike the immigrant pose when we go to our knees and give thanks for each breath. Then we are doing the immigrant asana, one of gratitude. It’s entirely accessible and effective, requiring only a deep humility and gratitude for the basics. For anyone suffering from hardening of arteries or hearts, there’s a prescription for recapturing gratitude, and it’s found in the immigrant asana:
1. Kneel on your mat.
2. Take several deep and conscious breaths.
3. Exhale in gratitude for your life and for the lives of your loved ones.
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