Philosophy of Yoga
What do COVID-19 and the Philosophy of Yoga have to do with each other? The answer is not immediately clear.
When we look back in history, many of the world’s well-known diseases, whether it be the bubonic plague, EBOLA, SARS or MERS, have animal origins. In these cases, they were rats, bats, a civet cat and a camel, respectively. The likely origin of the latest Coronavirus is also suspected to be bats, or pangolins.
One of the most well-known diseases, HIV, has its roots in human interaction with primates and the ‘Spanish’ flu of 1918 is believed to have originated from wild fowl. We also have had ‘bird’ and ‘swine’ flu, which require no further explanation.
Given the current trajectory of loss of biodiversity and record rates of deforestation, the likelihood of another zoonotic virus emerging is high. With the current economic devastation caused by COVID-19, this path is not sustainable. We need to change course.
As JP Morgan chief Jamie Dimon recently noted that:
“the pandemic is a wake-up call…for business and government think, act and invest for the common good.”
But what has this got to do with the philosophy of yoga? In particular, for those who work in financial services? A lot actually. From an individual level to the level of society, yoga philosophy provides valuable wisdom on how to live a harmonious and virtuous life – one that is respectful of fellow colleagues, and one that considers the impact of our actions upon the environment.
The Philosophy of Yoga
In the classical system of yoga described by Patanjali, the goal is to achieve ‘bliss’. As is the case of the great religions of the world, the path to such happiness is through moral discipline. Indeed, as the American scholar, Theodore Roszak noted:
“higher consciousness is born out of conscience: the very words are related, reminding us that we cannot expect to expand spiritual awareness unless we also expand our moral awareness of right and wrong, good and evil…“
Whilst most people in the West associate the practice of yoga with physical posture, at its very heart is a practice rooted in values. As part of the joy of self-realisation, we cannot be angry, greedy, and dishonest if we want to be happy and content, no matter how fancy our physical postures are.
So whilst practising yoga has a direct effect upon the body and mind in terms of physical and mental health, if the values by which we hold ourselves are not kind and honourable, then any peace of mind we achieve is likely to be short-lived.
What’s more, in the age of sustainability where awareness of our environment, our society and the structures that govern us are becoming heightened (ie ‘ESG‘, Environmental, Social and Governance goals), the need to do the right ‘moral’ thing is becoming even more urgent. Risk & return profiles need to be re-calibrated and priced-in to take into account the many negative externalities of our destructive consumerist behaviour.
Indeed, the very act of practising yoga involves a deep commitment to its values – to find peace and harmony within the microcosm of our global community. To this extent, the path to sustainability in the financial sector is one that balances the need to generate a return with being conscious of the environment. That is the biggest challenge the environment faces right now. As practitioners of yoga and financial professionals, we can help shift attitudes towards sustainability.
So what is the philosophy of yoga that can help guide finance professionals, both at an individual level and at societal level?
The path of yoga breaks them down into ‘yamas’ or virtues by which we relate to others, and ‘niyamas’, the virtues that we hold to ourselves. These limbs of yoga sit at the top of Patanjali’s classical system of yoga. These different aspects of yoga are not familiar to most yoga students whose practice is limited to physical postures, yet within the yoga system, they are essential.
Did you hear about the banker who was allegedly fired for stealing a sandwich from the staff canteen? It’s hard to believe when you have a seven-figure salary that you would resort to stealing from your own company, let alone for the sake of a sandwich.
Credit though to the organisation involved for taking the tough decision to terminate the employment of the individual. He may have made millions for the bank, but what price is millions when it comes to morals and ethics? They are priceless. What price was stealing that sandwich? A career and reputation shattered.
As the example of the unfortunate banker shows, stealing others’ property is not permitted. It could also extend to not stealing or taking others’ time – using the ‘reply all’ button unnecessarily, approaching someone whilst they are busy and interrupting their flow of concentration. In other words, being conscious, courteous and respectful of others’ time.
In a financial sector where there is a connection between pay and performance, the attachment to material desires can be strong. By letting go of some of those desires, a happier self can emerge. It could also extend to one’s title or even identity within the institution – feeling good about what we do, the contribution we make to the organisation and the role that we play and less about who we hold ourselves out to be and how much we are paid.
Whilst physical acts of violence are a crime, passive-aggressive behaviour is not, although we often feel as though we have been violated if receiving untoward verbal aggression. By being courteous to others with our actions, moderating or controlling any impulses or urges to respond to or provoke confrontation or conflict, we can learn to maintain a harmonious existence amongst our colleagues. A positive workplace culture, after all, is the key to workplace wellbeing, and the philosophy of yoga can help enormously in maintaining that.
By being honest, we can cultivate a working environment that is productive and in harmony. Having dignity and a reputation for being fair and truthful can go a long way in the corporate world. People look to leaders who are held in high-esteem and have charisma, especially when it comes to managing change and significant transformation.
Brahmacharya is the Sanskrit word for describing the process of using vital energy appropriately and wisely. Whilst in the true yogic sense, it is often associated with sexual energy (or even celibacy), in the context of the financial world, this yama can be extended to the wise use of scarce financial resources.
In particular, the amount of capital that a bank holds determines what and how much it can lend. In the age of sustainability, the financial sector will soon start having to make decisions about what type of green investments it is willing to support. The fine trade-off between risk and return will be balanced by the precious resources available. Used wisely, the resources of the financial sector can be deployed in the fight against climate change and to help shape the future of the world as we know it today.
On a personal level, it is also worth noting that using vital energy appropriately means not burning the ‘candle at both ends’. It means that long hours are balanced with precious self-care. It means looking after ourselves, mentally, physically and spiritually.
It means being conscious of the tendency to counter the mentality of ‘working hard’ with ‘playing hard’, enjoying all the fruits that working in the financial sector brings. It means saving and investing for the future, rather than blowing it all on fast cars, fancy dinners and other worldly pursuits. Money, at the end of the day, is nothing more than ‘energy’. Using it wisely can be the greatest vehicle for leading a content life. Abusing it can lead to self-ruin, such is its corrupting power.
If there is one yogic value that I treasure, it is ‘santosha’. This great moral constraint balances the sometimes excessive desires for materialism and wealth that can go with working in the City. If we are content with what we have and earn, then whenever the inevitable fluctuations in income or circumstances arise due to changes in economic conditions, an attitude of acceptance and harmony can still occur.
To demonstrate tapas is to embrace discipline. There is a certain level of intensity and commitment that goes with working in the City. It may involve tight deadlines. It might involve late nights and weekends. Whatever the situation requires, a level of dedication to get the deal done. Tenacity is therefore a hallmark that is required in order to have a sustainable career in the industry.
From the perspective of an organisation, employees acting as if they are the owner and being diligent in the use of scarce resources, is vital if the institution is to achieve its own goals. All of this requires discipline and sacrifice for the greater good of the organisation.
This niyama refers not only to physical cleanliness, but also to purity in mind and speech. In hierarchal organisations, identity is often derived from title. From this, a strong sense of ego personality may emerge, often resulting in arrogance and pride getting in the way of building productive relationships. The mind may become ‘polluted’.
Recognising this limited sense of self, and being humble and considerate in our dealings with others are all values which large institutions demand, especially in the context of accepting constructive challenge and different points of view. These qualities of mind and attributes lead towards a harmonious, inclusive culture. To this extent, ‘purity’ is seen in the context of a meritocratic institution where all opinions and views are valued.
In the yoga sutras, this value is associated with ‘self-study’. When we think about this in the Western context, we do not mean taking time out for ‘studying’ in the literal sense (we spend long enough at our desks as it is). We see it rather as the process of ‘self-inquiry’; it’s about a journey to the ‘self’, but it’s all about becoming more conscious. More self-aware, more alive within us, rather than taking part in a world that is dominated by addiction to phones and emails and the thrill of the deal. When we become more conscious, we get out of the ‘head’ and into the body. We start to breathe, we start to feel more alive.
We can experience this through our yoga and meditation practice, or even just being more conscious of our surroundings and taking the opportunity to detach and ‘drop in’ to the present moment. Often these moments are critical in developing greater self-awareness of the work that we do, and what is sustainable – both for our body and the larger environment. A life that is ‘unconscious’ is mindless and often destructive, however it is also an opportunity for transformation at any point in time. We just need to wake up to it and make better choices, knowing who we are and what really is productive.
Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender).
The term ‘Ishvara Pranidhana’ is made up of two words; Ishvara, which translates as ‘the Lord’, ‘Supreme Being’, ‘God’, ‘Brahman’, ‘Ultimate Reality’ or ‘True Self’ and Pranidhana, which can mean ‘devotion’. In the traditional translations of this niyama, it is often associated with surrender to the Lord, devotion to a deity. For many people, this idea, especially in the aesthetic sense, is troubling. However, George Feuerstein describes that rather than surrendering to the absolute monotheistic deity, it is rather surrendering to the wider universe – the ecology that we occupy and consume on a daily basis. It is about being connected to the very existence that sustains us. We can shift our conscious awareness from one that is self-centred and focused around the ‘I’ and self-preoccupation, to one that if focused on the role that we play in the world and the interconnectedness of it all.
In the age of sustainability, where financial transactions will be measured by the impact that they have on their environment, it is about admitting the part we all play and the impact that our behaviour has upon others. For instance, the recently agreed EU Taxonomy Regulation recognises certain environmental objectives that must be met for economic activity to be classified as sustainable, including the protection and restoration of biodiversity and ecosystems. This would go some way towards reducing the likelihood of another pandemic arising in the future.
With surrender, it also about accepting the wisdom of others, such as those tasked with studying the effects of climate change, and taking the necessary actions to do our small part in contributing to a more sustainable world.
The Philosophy of Yoga is ‘Sustainability’
So, as we can see, the traditions and values of yoga are rich and deep. They permeate all aspects of life. On an individual level, practising such values can result in finding the ‘middle way’; bringing satisfaction, credibility and respect in our professional careers.
On a societal level, in a highly interconnected world, and one that is rapidly becoming unsustainable, it is the philosophy of yoga that can help the drive towards a more sustainable world. One that, in particular, recognises the impact of financial transactions upon the environment, and helps us to decide where capital should be allocated.
Through conscious leadership, the world can find solutions to the environmental and climate risks that it currently faces. Although the philosophy of yoga may not be at the forefront for leaders and regulators, we can see that its rich values and philosophy can contribute to finding ways to make the world a more sustainable place.
As we have seen with the enormous amounts of governmental support for affected individuals and institutions during the pandemic, finance and money is the lifeblood of our economy. Yoga needs finance. Finance needs yoga. It’s the only way.
If I can help you during this crisis through yoga, please feel to get in touch or join me at one of my weekly online yoga classes. You can find more about my classes here.