Labor Day in America is a really strange thing.
A holiday recognizing workers gets a little weird when it’s framed more as the last gasp of summer, the beginning of school, the revving up of the National Football League, a chance to sell a lot of stuff, and an opportunity to serve a bunch of food.
Which all means that a big chunk of the working population works on Labor Day.
Describing the holiday this way might put the whole thing in a discouraging light, but it offers a shift of perspective back to the original idea of Labor Day. It’s a reminder to honor, consider, and be aware of the state of workers in America.
Of course people of different political persuasions will view this issue in different ways and will come up with very different answers as to the health and rights and strength of the American work force.
Here I’m less concerned with that broader political back-and-forth. What I can write about is what I see on the ground level, with people’s bodies and hearts and minds.
Work is such an important thing in the way it can give people structure, dignity and a sense of accomplishment.
In my job as a yoga teacher though, I get a close view of the struggles of work, the tangled parts of work that cause pain and suffering.
This is certainly the case for people who have to work in jobs they don’t like (and it’s magnified with people looking for a job), but I find there’s a lot of struggle around work even among people who love what they do.
That being the case, this piece could neatly button itself up with a conclusion along the lines of: “Work in today’s modern society is really hard and yoga can really help you. Don’t forget to come to yoga class.”
Certainly, I don’t disagree with this. Yoga can truly help to mitigate the slings and arrows of one’s work life. This is sometimes as far as it’s taken, but I think yoga can offer more than 5 poses you can do to deal with your shitty job.
If the relationship of a yoga practice to a job is that it only soothes the hurts, it might be tempting to just keep going along with what doesn’t work with work.
Yoga has much to offer to a person’s greater relationship with work because it is essentially a way to be more awake and aware, more deeply true to oneself.
Honoring that awareness might mean in one instance that a person maintains the fortitude to stay in an unfulfilling job for some time because it is clearly the available option that puts food on the table and pays the bills. In another instance, that awareness might reveal a possibility to do something different.
What’s more, the awakening that yoga inspires is of a piece with honoring work that is done, recognizing the energy that’s put into work, and having the presence of mind to lessen the suffering of others when it’s within one’s power to do so.
The forces at play that shape the distribution of income and labor are huge and overwhelming. My experience with yoga is that it can offer a way to live within those overwhelming, sometimes discouraging forces and stay open, stay available, while at the same time being able to question and probe and do what’s possible.
The other thing about yoga and work is that asana itself can be work (it’s also play, but that’s for another bit of writing). It’s work you can do for free if you have a personal practice. Or you can attend a class and pay someone to guide your work. Good deal, huh?
There’s a reason that it’s worth paying for: it helps people become more resilient to stress. Asana is itself a kind of useful stress that can help people become more adaptable to other stresses.
One of the key factors for this to be effective is that the work of asana is not wholly about quantity. That is, working more in an asana does not necessarily make a person more resilient. Working more than necessary can in fact burn a person out.
Instead, it is about learning to discern how much work, how much energy is appropriate. It’s about working with clarity and coordination.
This increased resilience and awareness can offer some very real benefits in relation to work. Especially when a job is very stressful, mitigating the challenges of work may be much of what the practice supports. This falls under the yogic precept of ahimsa, non-harming.
At the same time, as a person has a clearer sense of ahimsa for themselves, it can be extended to others.
It is in this spirit that right now I am thinking about all the varieties of work in this crazy world and all the people who work. I am thinking about people doing work that’s mundane, inspiring, pointless, nourishing, life-saving, dangerous, physically taxing, and mentally demanding. There’s so much work in the world, and so much joy and suffering that results from it.
Let this be a small offering to recognize the struggles and the fruits of work.
Let this be a small offering to honor work and workers.