Courage amid chaos: Yoga in the time of a coup
How one brave yogi is spreading a message of love and peace during the chaos and upheaval of the military coup in Myanmar. By Imogen North
We are yoga. You are yoga. I am yoga. We ARE yoga, but sometime in the last however many years we have decided that we DO yoga. We've decided that yoga is an activity that we partake in once or twice or five times a week and then when it is complete we move onto another activity like sleeping or eating or reading.
It was only when interviewing my dear friend Yogi Mala (I am unable to use her real name here to protect her identity) for this article that I had this stark reminder that yoga is not something that we DO but that it is something that we ARE.
So who is Yogi Mala? Yogi Mala is a yoga and meditation teacher, studio founder and director, NLP practitioner and political activist based in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Myanmar is country that links South Asia, East Asia and South-East Asia and a country that is still one of the world's cultural and religious centres for Buddhism. Yogi Mala was one of my students when I was based in Myanmar, she is a colleague and has become a dear friend.
Since the coup in Myanmar on February 1st this year, Yogi Mala has been ever the activist, continuing to find ways to support her community by teaching the practices of yoga whenever and in whatever ways she can. Officially she can’t continue to keep her yoga studio open for fear of persecution by the military junta who are leaving no stones unturned treating ‘dissidents’ like animals — imprisoning, torturing, shooting anyone who seemingly works against them. Yet Yogi Mala has found ways to offer gifts to her community, mainly through Zoom when the 3G and wifi are not disabled. Yogi Mala has been offering classes she calls 'gifts of respect and earnest devotion' — practices that cultivate ahimsa (non-violence) and courage. Vital qualities that the people of Myanmar so need to embody right now.
What I have always found challenging to get my head around is that a country that has one of the oldest meditation lineages in the world, with a Buddhist tradition that goes back thousands of years, whose people are some of the kindest most inquisitive humans I have met on this planet has, for so long, lived surrounded by so much hatred, violence and chaos.
I asked Yogi Mala how Buddhism can still fit into society with so much violence prevelant? She explained to me that essentially you can separate the Buddhist people of Myanmar into two categories: the Buddhist traditionalists and the Buddhist practitioners. Due to the restrictive education system and the controlled isolation the country has been under since the first coup of 1958, most learning has been parrot fashion. Students have not been encouraged to think analytically or critically and have grown up terrorised by fear that they will be persecuted for thinking outside the box.
The Buddhist traditionalists are very ‘religious’ in that they do all the right things (donate to monasteries, chant, count beats and some even go on Vipassana meditation retreats), but very few really get the point. Very few of the traditionalist see how to apply the practices to daily life. There is a void, a missing link between their practices and their purpose.
Then there are the Buddhist practitioners who really get it. Those who understand how to connect the practices to their daily lives applying mindfulness and awareness to their actions outside of traditional practice.
Yogi Mala thinks bridging the gap is where she can really begin to make a difference with her teaching. She can use the more ‘tangible practices’ of yoga to create connection for traditionalists to help them really understand why we practice. Most people in Myanmar have not had access to yoga and most see it as a very separate practice to the practice of meditation.
I want try to understand a little more about what drives Yogi Mala to continue with her work, despite the risk or persecution. From where I stand right now she is yoga. She is the true embodiment of yoga, devoting herself to teaching non-violent and courageous practices amid this constant chaos. She is the epitome of hope. She tells me that devotional yoga (Bhakti), is timeless, and that it will become more and more relevant for Myanmar the closer it gets to democracy. What they need first is humans rights, and then, she says, “we can move towards a place of spiritual democracy”. Yogi Mala teaches that every breath we take, every step we make can be an offering on the path of peace. In her personal practice she looks to find meaning in each breath. This, in turn, connects her to the highest form of herself as well as others (living and non-living beings). This simple awareness practice has had such a profound effect on her experience of the world she wants to share it.
One technique that Yogi Mala has found particularly useful in her sessions since February 1st is creating silence for students. She has introduced two minutes of silence at the beginning of most of her classes. She said this brief time of total silence has had incredible calming effects for people’s nervous systems. I was quite surprised by this as often people who have been subject to traumatic events or who are suffering with PTSD find silence and stillness to be quite triggering (particularly as an opening practice). Often we would recommend as trauma sensitive yoga teachers, to quote Bessel van der Kolk, “first (students need to) learn to regulate physiology with breath, postures and relaxation and then work towards mediation and silence.” My theory as to why this 'silence practice' is helping students in Myanmar at this time is testament to how deeply embeded meditation practice is in Bamar society. Touching silence is something most of the community are taught from a young age.
Yogi Mala talked about one of her clients whom she is currently coaching one to one who has really transformed with this silence practice. She said it gives him space to prepare for his meditation and then he works with gratitude and journalling. I am a big fan of journalling. it has been a transformative practice for me over the years and one that I recognise not only helps boost my memory, my clarity of thinking but also helps me reflect so my cognitive processing is improved and that in turn boosts my mood. It is a great option I recommend particularly when working with students on their mental wellness.
Before the coup earlier this year, Yogi Mala’s intention with her teaching had been to bring the essence of yoga to the hearts of the people of Myanmar. Since 2019 she noticed a yoga revolution in Myanmar. Yoga seemed to be blooming everywhere but she wonders if she was in fact seeing more in Myanmar because that is where her full focus was, she smiles, “where my attention goes, my awareness flows.”
Now her intention is to provide the ground work for healing on all levels — physical, mental and emotional — many students having witnessed the most unimaginable violence the last five months. She has created classes that provide her community with the tools to navigate their day-to-day lives with moment-to-moment awareness, courage and grace.
The Buddha talks extensively on courage. He was himself a symbol of courage overcoming all sorts of difficulties, brave enough to take a stance against materialism and his own attachment to pleasure. But what does it mean to be courageous? Particularly when in the midst of a military coup? It feels to me so insensitive to be considering the courage of the Buddha within this frame but this is where we are.
It drew me to thinking about the 11th century yogi-hero Milarepa, a Himalayan Buddhist who talks about demons. Milarepa had a tough life, born into privilege and then oppressed by his aunt and uncle. Milarepa murdered them to retaliate against their cruelty. He then repented and became a student of dharma and lived a simple solitary life, sheltered in a cave.
One day, Milarepa left his cave to gather firewood, and when he returned he found that his cave had been taken over by demons. There were demons everywhere! First he thought: ‘I have got to get rid of them!’ He lunged toward them, chasing after them, trying forcefully to get them out of his cave. But the demons were completely unfazed. The more he chased them, the more comfortable they seem to be. Realising that his efforts to run them out had failed, Milarepa opted for a new approach and decided to teach them the dharma. If chasing them out won’t work, then maybe hearing the teachings will change their minds. So he took his seat and began teaching about existence and nonexistence, compassion and kindness and the nature of impermanence. After a while he looked around and realised all the demons were still there. They were simply staring at him with their huge bulging eyes; not moving.
At this moment, Milarepa let out a deep breath of surrender, knowing now that these demons would not be manipulated into leaving and that maybe he had something to learn from them. He looked deeply into the eyes of each demon and bowed, saying: “It looks like we’re going to be here together. I open myself up to whatever you have to teach me.” In that moment all the demons but one disappeared. One huge and especially fierce demon, with flaring nostrils and dripping fangs, remained. So Milarepa let go even further. He stepped across to this large demon and offered himself completely, holding nothing back. “Eat me if you wish.” He placed his head in the demon’s mouth, and at that moment the largest demon bowed low and dissolved into space.
I think of Yogi Mala on her mission in Myanmar when I remind myself of this story of Milarepa. Opening herself up to the demons. The demons so present in her life. How can she take courage from Milarepa’s courage? One of the outcomes of our evolution as humans is conditioning. We have been conditioned to do anything but put our head in the mouth of the demon. We have been conditioned to avoid, to fight, to defend.
But what evolution has also given us is this capacity to be self-reflexive, to be compassionate, to open into resistance. We can learn, if we are willing to try, to stay, and instead of defending with violence, fighting or running away, we can teach ourselves to open. This is the essence of courage.
This is the challenge Yogi Mala has now as a practitioner and teacher. She needs to invite the demons in, instead of fighting them and feeding their glorified violence; she needs to open peacefully like a lily in the mud. She needs to soften. She needs to stick her head in the demons’ mouths; it’s risky, but it's the only path to freedom. It is the only way she will find calm amid all the chaos of a coup.