Article written for West Papua with Sarrah Jayne, Off the Mat Wellington
The practice of yoga is an art and a science dedicated to creating union between body, mind and spirit. Its objective is to assist us in using the breath and body to foster an awareness of ourselves and our intimate connection to the unified whole of creation. In short, it is about making balance and creating equanimity so as to live in peace, good health and harmony with the greater whole.
The ancient text of The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali describes the inner workings of the mind and provides an eight-step blueprint for controlling its restlessness so as to enjoying lasting peace. The first of these 8 steps is the Yamas which talks about a kind of universal morality: a guide to navigating the physical world peacefully with behaviour that matches our internal mission. The first of the Yamas is ahimsa.
The word ahimsa literally means not to injure or to show cruelty to any creature or any person in any way whatsoever. Ahimsa is, however, more than just lack of violence as adapted in yoga: it means kindness, friendliness, and thoughtful consideration of other people and things. It also has to do with our duties and responsibilities.
Ahimsa implies that in every situation we should adopt a considerate attitude and do no harm.
This teaching is here at our fingertips to guide us. How much attention do we pay as a community, to these teachings? In what way do we make choices that move us towards this practice of ahimsa and in what way are our actions causing harm?
On May 13, Off the Mat Aotearoa hosted a hui at Aro Valley Community Hall, inviting Pacific activists to help us consider one critical aspect of our yoga community culture in relation to ahimsa: our regular trips to Balinese yoga centres, retreats, and our resulting investment in and wider promotion of tourism of Indonesia.
The activists present – Tere Harrison, TeRana Porter and Pala Molisa – discourage friends and whanau from visiting Indonesia, because of its brutal, genocidal occupation of West Papua.
West Papua is situated on the island we know as New Guinea, sandwiched between Indonesia and Australia, but ethnically part of Melanesia. It’s little talked about, but Indonesia is currently undertaking a military occupation of West Papua that its indigenous people have been suffering under since 1969. Since that year, Indonesia has slaughtered over 500,000 West Papuans – half a million people. By a U.N. definition, that’s genocide.
This leads filmmaker, radio broadcaster and West Papua activist Tere Harrison to say to practitioners:
The question I hope we ask ourselves is are we comfortable with going to Bali to practice yoga? Can we reconcile that in ourselves and our hearts? For it seems to me that that would be in direct opposition to all that yoga is.
At Aro Valley hall, Harrison played her powerful short film Run It Straight to outline more about the situation in West Papua. Run It Straight takes its name from rugby league, and it tells the story of young Naenae College mobilising as they find out about what is happening to their Pasifika whanau. It both informs us about West Papua, and models the kinds of conversations that need to be encouraged throughout Aotearoa – in communities like ours.
Run It Straight discusses how Indonesia and West Papua were colonised by the Netherlands in the nineteenth century, until Indonesia gained independence and started eyeing up West Papua for itself. West Papua is one of the most mineralogically rich regions in the Pacific, and the U.S., which now controls Grasberg mine – the largest goldmine on earth – has supported Indonesia’s occupation from the beginning. They supply Indonesia with arms and pressured the U.N. to give Indonesia a mandate to take West Papua in the 1960s.
That happened in 1969, when Indonesia hand-picked one thousand regional representatives (only 10% of the million strong population) to run a rigged referendum that they called that the “Act of Free Choice”. It asked West Papuans whether they wanted to be part of Indonesia – at gunpoint.
Since then, 500,000+ West Papuans have been murdered. The indigenous population has dropped from about 100% to closer to 30% of the total.
The international solidarity movement, lead by Benny Wenda, is calling for Indonesia to exit West Papua and part of the strategy is to boycott Indonesia.
This is now something Wellington’s yoga community has begun to consider. We watched Harrison’s film as a lead-up to discussing our yoga community’s own links to Indonesia, and to begin exploring ways we can better engage and practice ahimsa to support the struggle for freedom in West Papua.
We don’t hear about West Papua much in Aotearoa because of the state’s vested interests in Indonesia, because of the $800 million worth of exports we send to Indonesia annually, and because of the restrictions Indonesia places on foreign media. That’s why Harrison made her film: without grassroots discussions, grassroots activism, and grassroots liberation struggle – West Papua can’t be free.
Our actions matter. Our May meeting marked the beginning of what we know will be an ongoing, substantive conversation between Pasifika working toward freedom in West Papua, and the yoga community. We’ll be following up this gathering with more events to build awareness, to practice ahimsa for West Papua.
We hope that you will join us!
With thanks to Tere Harrison, TeRana Porter, Pala Molisa and Off the Mat Wellington – nga mihi, tankyu tumas.