Today, in honor, celebration, and remembrance of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, we reflect upon all that Dr. King fought for, marched for, and ultimately, died for, during his time as a civil rights activist and leader, over five decades ago. While much of America’s landscape has changed in the time since Dr. King marched on Washington, wrote letters from a Birmingham jail, or stood behind the pulpit in Montgomery, much still remains the same.
As students of yoga, actively engaged in walking Patanjali’s Eight-Limbed Path, it’s impossible to not see a link between the actions and teachings of MLK, and those outlined in the first two limbs of the Eight-fold Path (coming before Asana!): the Yamas and Niyamas.
The Yamas and Niyamas are moral and ethical guidelines that inform and direct yogic action; they serve as a map to chart the course of one’s life, and provide a clear and straightforward framework for how to conduct ourselves off the mat – both in how we treat ourselves, and how we treat others.
It is not coincidental that the very first of these moral directives is Ahimsa, which means to cause no injury, and do no harm. Essentially, Ahimsa is non-violence.
In his 1958 memoir of the Montgomery bus boycott, Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King outlined six principles of non-violence; basic steps toward non-violent action that he taught and lived until the day he died. Importantly, he made it clear that non-violence is not for the cowardly, weak, passive, or fearful. Non-violence is the way of the strong. Dr. King wrote,
“Nonviolent resistance does resist. It is not a method of stagnant passivity… The method is passive physically, but strongly active spiritually. It is not passive non-resistance to evil; it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.”
In his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community?, Dr. King wrote,
“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
MLK believed in living his principles through action. At a time in our history that was marked by violence and war, Dr. King refused to give in to his basest instincts; He refused to return violence with violence, or hate with hate. Instead of allowing himself to be swallowed by the darkness, he became the light. He chose a new way. And in so doing, he became the change he sought to create.
The second of the Yamas is Satya, which means truth, or truthfulness.
On the subject of truth, Dr. King was clear: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
While he is rightly revered and loved by many in today’s modern age, it is important to remember that, in his time, MLK was a highly divisive and radical figure.
The FBI famously wire-tapped him, beginning in 1955 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, until his assassination on April 4th, 1968. After his controversial anti-Vietnam speech at Riverside Church in 1967, the FBI stepped up their surveillance efforts in an attempt to discredit him, and pundits across both sides of the aisle criticized him for his firm and controversial stand, given at a time when most Americans still supported the war. Even members of his own staff warned him not to give the speech, but Dr. King stuck to his ideals, and refused to back down.
On the Vietnam War, and America’s involvement in it, King stated, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
King believed in speaking your truth, no matter the cost. One month after his speech at Riverside, he spoke at a conference, stating, “The cross may mean the death of your popularity. Even so, take up your cross and just bear it.”
As students walking the yogic path, we can draw inspiration from and hold in our hearts the words of Dr. King. While he wasn’t a “yogi” in the traditional sense, his teachings and actions are a modern example of what it looks like to truly walk the path, and stay on the path.
In alignment with the yogic practices of Ahimsa, and Satya, King lived his truth, and in so doing, inspired countless lives across the world. Both during the time of his life, and perhaps even moreso now, a half century after his passing, King’s influence and impact is undeniable. His words echo into the annals of our collective history, across the vastness of time and space, straight into our ears, eyes, and hearts, and prove just as relevant, important, and necessary now as they ever were.
Be patient, be gentle, be kind. Love with all your might. Speak your truth, and live your truth. You, too, just might change the world.