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Pope Francis spent last weekend in Philadelphia. This was a big deal on many levels. The planning! The special train tickets! The security! The traffic! Truly, this story, just from the point of view of logistics, has been a headline for weeks. And well it should be. This was an event of a global magnitude that the city hadn’t hosted in years.
But immediately upon his arrival, the tenor of the story shifted to a different, more intimate, level. The images of his spontaneous choice to pause his procession to bless a young man with cerebral palsy while still at the airport melted hearts everywhere. His seemingly profound desire to touch and to connect with people was evident throughout his entire visit. He stopped the Pope-mobile to bless babies, he made unscheduled visits to tiny, hand-made chapels, he set aside a prepared speech to speak from his heart.
While in Philadelphia, Pope Francis continued to walk and talk his open-armed, welcoming message of love and inclusion. In doing so, he charged all who heard him to do the same – to look at the people around us with an eye for ways to connect. To continually ask ourselves: “How can I make this better?” “How can I help?” “How can I make this world a better place?” In his sermon, seen by millions, on Sunday afternoon he emphasized that the power to do so is available to each and every one of us. This power is found in the little things. It is in small gestures, little actions, and simple, kind responses that we can change the world we live in.
This is not a new idea to me. I suspect the same is true for each of you. Yoga teaches us a simple code of life that helps us stay in right relationship with the people and world around us.
As we study yoga, we learn to respond deliberately and mindfully in even the most challenging moments in our lives. We are taught to refrain from adding fuel to any fire by adhering to non-violence in thought, word and deed. Another way to say this is that we are taught to default to love and kindness. We are taught to be truthful. We are taught not to take that which is not ours or that which is not freely offered to us. We are taught that moderation in all things is better than excess in a few. We are taught to hold our blessings with open hands and a heart that is willing and happy to share.
For several years, I’ve shared this code of life with my students in teacher training. We spend several weeks focusing on one tenet (or yama in Sanskrit) at a time. My students pay attention to all the instances each day when they resort to an unkind word or action. When they are tempted to lie or to steal. When – and, more importantly – why they want to take more than their fair share. When they’re unwilling or unhappy about having to share.
The things they learn about themselves are always surprising. The moments when they get off track are not always big. In fact, they’re often so silly or small that it would be easy to write them off as inconsequential. After all, does it really matter if you don’t want to share the batch of cookies your sister made especially for you? Of if you keep the $10 bill that the clerk at the dry cleaners accidentally gave you instead of a $1? Or if you lie to your boss about the state of a project she’s waiting for?
The answer is no and yes. No, it doesn’t really matter if you share your cookies, or keep the money or tell that white lie. The world will go on. But, on the other hand, choosing to share, choosing to not keep the extra money and choosing to be honest changes the world profoundly. In each of these little gestures, you have the chance to connect – to build, develop or wholly change a relationship. You have the chance to send a little burst of good out into the world that will (I can almost guarantee it) ripple its way to others you may never meet or know. Not to mention, you will feel good about yourself.
Every year, I am left in awe of the transformative nature of these simple ideas. I’ve had the privilege to observe entire lives change as students fully embrace even one of these ideas. I’ve watched discontentment and anxiety melt away. I’ve watched tight, angry hearts soften and open. I’ve watched relationships shift and grow. In short, I’ve not only watched my students change the way that they’re living, but I’ve watched them change the world around them.
Pope Francis is right. There is indeed great power in the little things. There is indeed a tremendous good that comes to us when we choose to reach out and connect. This is why his message is reaching into hearts well beyond the bounds of the Catholic church. It’s a beautiful thing to witness a man with such access to tremendous prestige and power choose to live and act in a way that is quite clearly dictated by his conscience – he would say, I suspect, by his spirit.
I watch Francis and he inspires hope in me. Because I know that every single student of yoga in the world (and there are millions of us!) has the tools in their tool belt to make the same choice. We can each choose to live a life dictated by our consciences. We can choose to walk the walk rather than talk the talk one little step a time. And when we do, we can change the world around us as surely (albeit perhaps on a somewhat smaller scale) as Pope Francis is doing.