Ways of Seeing: This yoga tree holds ancient symbols to live by

I didn’t have enough going on over Chanukah, Christmas, and New Year’s, so I decided to paint a 16-foot-long mural on one of the walls in the yoga studio. Really, I would have preferred to do this at any other time, but this is just how things worked out. Actually, I wasn’t planning on painting the mural myself at all. I pictured myself more in the role of a benevolent overlord, saying encouraging things, like “Wow, it’s really coming along beautifully!” Or, “Maybe a little more green down at this end?”
When the studio moved to its new home in the Marble Works, a little over three years ago, I immediately began to imagine how this long wall would look, covered with a mural of a huge, spreading tree, with eight limbs. Because yoga is described as an eight-limbed endeavor, the tree would depict each aspect of our practice. Although most of us are first drawn to yoga for some physical reason (we have a bad back, or we want to lower our blood pressure, or we want to be more flexible) we soon learn that through the doorway of the physical postures, we can learn about all the other facets of this rich practice.
The first limb of the tree is described by the Sanskrit word Yama. Yama means abstentions, or ethical precepts, or What Not To Do. There are five branches coming off of this limb. These five ethical precepts are Not Harming (nonviolence), Truth (no dishonesty), Not Stealing (practicing generosity), Continence (no sexual misconduct), and Greedlessness (no hoarding resources).
Now my original intention for this mural was that someone, a real artist, would paint the tree, complete with bark, leaves, and nesting birds, and I would come along and write the Sanskrit word along each limb. You may have guessed, from the opening paragraph of this column, that this is not exactly how things worked out. One of my students, a lovely young person and very talented artist, took my rough sketch and turned it into an elegant eight limbed tree, outlined on the wall. She sketched a monkey sitting on one of the limbs, and painted a beautiful peacock on another. Then she dropped off the face of the earth! Apparently this is not at all uncommon among college students, as finals and the holiday break approach.
It turned out that as soon as my artist friend had taken her last final, she had gone to NYC to take part in the Black Lives Matter protests, after the grand jury had declined to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner. I couldn’t be more proud of her for joining in these historic demonstrations. As I was painting the word Ahimsa (Sanskrit for nonviolence) on the first branch of the first limb of the tree of yoga, I was thinking about the dreadful statistic that in the United States, every 28 hours a person of color is killed by a police officer, security guard or vigilante.
The second branch on that limb, Satya (Sanskrit for truth), asks me to search inside for how racism has affected my own mind and heart, and to tell the truth about it, to myself and others. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is so apt, and yet so heartbreaking. Why do we have to paint this on a sign, and hold it up on the street corner? It is painful to recognize how much our society disregards the lives of people of color. How else to explain the fact that African-Americans, who only comprise 13 percent of regular drug users, make up 35 percent of drug arrests, 55 percent of convictions, and 74 percent of people sent to prison for drug possession? It’s an unjust and immoral system that has fractured the lives of so many U.S. citizens.
While my heart aches for the hundreds of thousands of families who will be missing people around their holiday tables, I am glad that people from all walks of life are grappling with these issues, having difficult conversations, and taking to the streets. Even in little Middlebury, Vermont, over a hundred people came out on a chilly December afternoon to say, “Black Lives Matter.” I think a lot of people came to that vigil because they could put themselves in the shoes of a mother who lost her son to police brutality, or a father whose teenager is sentenced to life in prison.
The tree in my studio still has a ways to go, but each limb is named, and the branch that says Aparigraha (Sanskrit for Not Being Greedy) asks me to look within and see what I have to offer to this world. My prayer for 2015 is that we can all look into our own hearts, and stretch ourselves to be as generous as possible with our resources of time, energy and money to create the society we want to live in. I want to live in a country where everyone has equal opportunities to thrive, no matter how much pigment they have in their skin. How about you?
Joanna Colwell is the director of Otter Creek Yoga in Middlebury’s Marble Works District. She lives in East Middlebury with her family, and hopes for an even bigger turnout at the next Black Lives Matter vigil in January.

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