The ancient yogic practice of Surya Namaskar, or Sun Salutation as it’s more commonly known, serves as a great sequence to energise the body of a morning or to warm up the muscles and mind ahead of a yoga session. Slowed down, it can also be used to centre awareness and find calm.
More recently, this graceful movement found itself part of an altogether different exercise, fundraising, as Peace Direct, an international charity that works with local communities to prevent war destroying lives, asked people to raise money by performing ‘500 Sun Salutations in May’. A Facebook group that embraced the challenge attracted 1941 members. I was one of them.
Accepting this physical and mental task at a time of global crisis, social isolation and great change was a reminder that people have a greater capacity for strength, endurance and patience than they often realise.
This is what I learned doing 500 Sun Salutations, and what it taught me about peace.
Many cultures strive for perfection, their citizens fed the idea that if something isn’t the right shape, the right size, the right colour, then it’s not good enough. If it isn’t new, it just won’t wash.
Looking back, I admit that by day 10, I was fed up with Sun Salutations. I was going through the motions just to reach my daily target, to achieve the right alignment and to update my fundraising page. As the challenge went on, however, I found a sense of joy and patience in the repetitive actions of the asanas, or poses, and slowly began to let go of the need to improve and perfect the sequence.
In the end, I wasn’t sure if Sun Salutation 499 was any better than nine, but freeing myself of the need to achieve the perfect yoga practice enabled me to find the experience more fulfilling.
Of course, I wasn’t alone. I had my fellow 1940 group members – all strangers until the beginning of May – and I drew strength from a communal sense of support and compassion. People happily shared advice and experience to ensure everyone, of all abilities, ages and lifestyles, would be able to take part in the challenge, and even offered to take on others’ Sun Salutations when a member was finding it tough going.
At a time of physical distancing and social isolation, it was a reminder that kindness and compassion shown to those we don’t know can be truly transformational and that peace is possible if we show the same amount of respect to strangers as we do to those we love. South African cleric and human rights activist Desmond Tutu has gone even further: ‘Peace comes when you talk to the guy you most hate,’ he once said, advocating that harmony and forgiveness are to be found by talking to adversaries as well as friends.
Last month, as I practised my 500 Sun Salutations, I felt more connected to those group members than I do the fellow yogis with whom I often share a crammed studio.
On the days of the challenge where I felt particularly restless, tired or distracted, I kept in mind the resilience and courage demonstrated every day by Peace Direct’s local partners, the people on the ground in regions ravaged by violent conflict.
In many a yoga class, an instructor will encourage participants to set an intention – for a friend, a relative or something beyond the self – and dedicate their practice to this person or cause. Knowing the intention of my personal challenge was to support those in war-torn areas helped me to keep going on the days when motivation was waning.
Setting an intention at the beginning of a task is one way to remember your reason for getting involved in the first place and an encouragement to celebrate all your achievements: whether that’s raising funds, reaching a personal milestone, developing a new skill or making someone smile.
If you’re on the brink of undertaking a challenge or trying something new, but are held back by self-doubt or a fear of failure, this is ultimately what ‘500 Sun Salutations in May’ taught me:
Words: Sarah Phillips, Peace Direct Senior Communications Officer.
The ‘500 Sun Salutations in May’ challenge is now over, but you can still support local peacebuilding at peacedirect.org/donate.
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