Tonight in my regular Monday yoga class, I shared some excerpts from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning to set the tone.
I did so because I often find myself saying to my classes that one of the things I most appreciate about yoga is that it’s a place where we get to choose, where we get to practice our agency (Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas’s favorite word ;-p).
I like the word a lot, too, so first, let us answer: What does is mean to have agency?
The “sense of agency” (or sense of control) refers to the subjective awareness that one is initiating, executing, and controlling one’s own volitional actions in the world.
Ok, personally, got it, but as a social scientist, I feel the need to answer what is agency in the context of a social setting because, well, we all live in one of some sort.
Agency in social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, structure is those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions.
Therefore, in accepting that we all exist within a variety of structures – environmental, social, cultural, familial, ethnic, etc – people continue to wrestle with when and how we have choice (or not) in our matters of living. How much do those structures and experiences limit us or not?
Frankl convincingly argues an oft spoken line in yoga classes “the space between stimulus and response is choice”, or variations of that like “you can choose to respond or react here.” Pithy, perhaps, but Frankl better explains it, I think, in regards to his experience of YEARS spent in a Nazi CONCENTRATION CAMP:
“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make.”
There were always choices to make? In a concentration camp?! YUP!
What a humbling comparison. That even in what is one of the direst of circumstances most of us could probably imagine, this man speaks of having CHOICE.
He goes on to say that those who essentially suffered with dignity, and who died with dignity, “bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost.”
So when I say that yoga is a place where we get to exercise our agency, where we get to feel a sense of empowerment, and make choices, I don’t think I’m alone. It’s not that Frankl was explicitly yogic in his teachings – he’s not, he was a Viennese psychotherapist – but that mindfulness is a practice of choice, and as Frankl writes about choice, it seamlessly speaks to my mindfulness practice and teachings, as well.
I.e. it’s not about emptying our heads or stopping our thoughts, but choosing which ones to pay attention to.
I don’t know about you, but there are a lot of yoga classes in which I’ve felt I SUFFERED (struggled, been challenged, etc)! And the way we handle that suffering on the mat is great practice for how we handle it off the mat. It’s a cheap comparison in some ways, and I’m not really directly comparing a hard yoga class to concentration camp (c’mon!), but just trying to say that yoga is this really great place to deliberately, mindfully choose our breath, our thoughts, our movement in a contained environment and it does us a lot of good. It’s a way to tangibly practice this principle of choice, I think.
And there is dignity and meaning and value in the way in which we suffer.
Have you known someone who died with dignity?
Have you admired someone who seemed to handle hit after hit that life threw at them without becoming bitter?
Suffering is unavoidable in our life, but our response to it is up to us.
Therefore, my New Year’s resolution is to continue to hone my awareness of my choices in response or my attitude in the most challenges of situations I may find or put myself in.
How about you?
* Essentially summarizing from pages 64-70 in edition of Frankl’s book.
* Photo from happyproject.com