A Challenge to the Yoga Community—Can We Endorse Obama?—Raises More Questions than Answers

I’ve felt for years that yoga community will never evolve into a functional culture until it becomes first active, and then effective, in progressive politics. I’ve argued that the true promise of yoga will be fulfilled when practitioners are able to harmonize the internal gifts of practice with the demands of civic reality, and employ their quiet insights to the task of social empathy. I collated these thoughts into my 21st Century Yoga article—the long-winded title is self-explanatory: “Modern Yoga Will Not Form a Real Culture Until Every Studio Can Also Double as a Soup Kitchen.”

On Thursday, I initiated a dialogue on Elephant Journal that is, I believe, critical to this cultural maturation. I asked a really simple question: are American practitioners willing to publicly endorse Obama’s re-election bid, given that the Romney/Ryan platform is anathema to the yogic ideals of social equity and environmental protection? The response has been mostly positive, with eight blogging endorsements of Obama posted in the first 24 hours. But many other responses to this question have revealed the complex weave of our demographic, and the challenges of our path forward.

I anticipated two such complexities and pre-emptively called them out. The “etheric-dissociative” sentiment in modern yoga culture would rather not engage with politics at all, lest it dirty the samadhi-vibe. The “flaccid-polite” sentiment is willing to engage, but only at the gateway, non-partisan level of the voting drive, which raises the embarrassing question: Are there yogis who don’t vote? Apparently there are.

But there are four complexities that emerged in the comment thread that I didn’t anticipate. First: the hyper-individualism of yogis who reflexively bristle at being encouraged to do anything collectively, because everyone’s dharma is different, etc. I can’t help but wonder, along with Shyam Dodge and Carol Horton, if this comes from blending the profound alienation of the neo-liberal era with an over-emphasis upon the privacy of yogic insight. Because this system is fucked, in other words, only my own inner truth is reliable. Don’t subject it to a reality test or civic demands. No one knows my Self but me.

Second: moral idealism that makes perfection the enemy of the good. Obama has a kill list, Green Party Leader Jill Stein does not. Obama has desecrated the principle of habeus corpus, and moved too slowly on alternative energy. Jill Stein would fix it all. Problem: Jill Stein is polling at 2% nationwide. So a vote for her in a swing state is really a vote for Romney, and a causal vote if he wins. Many yogis, it seems, cannot swallow this bitter and ironic poison. I recommend mayurasana, which fiercely tones agni: named for the peacock who devours poisonous herbs to produce blazing colour. And to focus on Patanjali’s moral pragmatism, rather than his doctrinaire ahimsa. In 4.7 he says: “The actions of a realized yogi transcend good and evil” (Hartranft). And finally, to realize who, starting in January, really pays for the idealism that could spoil an Obama victory: the poor, the raped, the uninsured.

Third: it seems there are a number of practitioners who have entered yoga precisely to relieve themselves of the tensions of political engagement.

I can see a path through each of these three complexities. The first is addressed through a persistent emphasis on interdependence. The second isn’t really a problem, but simply a healthy debate about the merits of conscience voting—a debate we could be having on any progressive blog, before any election. And the third means we must be patient with those whose yoga is really in a therapeutic stage. In time, their cocoon will burst.

But the fourth problem is really thorny: the question of whether yoga culture is inherently progressive at all. The commenter named “Guest” asked: “What’s the next step on this path? An article about why you can’t be a good yogi and a Republican? A sign in the window of your yoga studio saying ‘No conservatives allowed here?'”

As far as “Republican” goes, I would ask (along with Frank Jude Boccio) whether the current Republican platform is in any way coherent with the values expressed by any of the shad darshanas, whether it supports purusharthas, etc. Is it coherent with the yamas and niyamas? As far as “conservative” goes, we’d really have to define the term, yet again. As a cautious approach to socio-economic change, absolutely there’s room. As a doctrine of socio-economic exclusion and even cruelty, I think not.

Which begs the question: Do progressive yogis need to take the plunge and actually define what yoga is, not according to the terms of practice, which, as Be Scofield points out, are politically neutral, but in terms of socio-political outcomes? The more I think of it: if practicing ethics, posture, breathwork, and meditation leads you to progressive, socially active empathy, you’re practicing yoga. If it leads you to a more self-regulated, concentrated, and efficient narcissism, you’re just not. So: if I’m your teacher, whether in Manhattan or Kansas, am I brave enough to tell you so? Instead of my studio sign saying “No conservatives allowed here,” might it say, “This is a progressive space”? Most importantly: Would I be willing to lose students and income by wearing my progressive politics on my sleeve?

Here’s a funny and related story about who gets to own and define yoga: I have another current post on EJ, in my guru-busting mode, looking at the structural failures that lead both corporate (Anusara) and traditional/spiritual yoga organizations (Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram) to often harbor terrible leaders and leadership principles. My attackers on that page crusading Hindutva tell me that the “Western appropriation” of traditional yoga is to blame not only for the corruption of ancient teachings, but for the explosion in fraudulent teachers. They demand that “we” somehow return yoga to the “motherland.”

More than ever before, I empathize with their passion, as I watch my beloved art-therapy-spirituality sold on the open political market. I wonder if progressive yogis will soon be in the strange position of echoing The Hindu American Foundation’s “Take Back Yoga” initiative. Instead of calling for the invention of some kind of ethnic yoga purity, we would be drawing a much more relevant line in the sand: that if you trash the environment, denigrate 47% of the population as freeloaders, redefine rape, sow hatred amongst the working poor, tell the uninsured to heal themselves in the emergency room, and look the other way when a lying plutocrat hides his tax returns in his magic underwear, you can stretch and breathe and focus your thoughts all you like, but if you call it yoga, you’ll have a dogfight on your hands.

Photo: Krishna and Arjuna; Obama for Tacos; Stephania Sanquiz Donelli; Dog Play

6 Responses to “A Challenge to the Yoga Community—Can We Endorse Obama?—Raises More Questions than Answers”
  1. Tony says:

    The Democrats who predicted the 2012 campaign
    “it seems that the White House has concluded that if the president cannot run on his record, he will need to wage the most negative campaign in history to stand any chance.” “Obama will have left the nation divided, disillusioned and less governable.” A sign that says this is a progressive place might leave the libertarians looking for the dojo.

    I think there is a direct correlation between Obama’s historic negative campaign and your willingness to “draw a line in the sand.” Why are Romney’s indiscretions worse than Obama’s? What do you gain by being pragmatic? Keeping Romney out of office is not an answer. We’ve heard that argument from both sides for 60 years. For the last 20, the trend has been more neo-liberalism with each president outspending the other. Dem or GOP makes no difference.

  2. Manoj Mehta says:

    Here’s something I posted earlier this morning relating to a similar topic on Prof. Douglas Brooks’ Facebook page:

    “….and meanwhile, Arjuna rolled out his yoga mat at the centre of the battlefield, after the conches started blowing and the war was about to begin. He busted out his best Virabhadrasana I, II and III, added a now-lost IV, slipped into Savasana and came out fully-refreshed and energized. After a full hour of Nadi Shodhana pranayama followed by some vigorous Bhastrika, he did another 10 minutes of Savasana. He then rolled up his top-of-the-range Manduka mat, padded for extra comfort (and also ribbed for more grip…and dare I say, more pleasure). Out came the deerskin asana (or was it tiger skin?). He sank into a steady Padmasana, all filled with ease and comfort, stable as the ground under him and for a few fleeting seconds, once the vikalpas and vikshepas were dealt with, slipped into an amazing and bliss-filled samadhi. Just as he was coming out of this blissful state, Duryodhana, Duhshasana, Bhisma, Dronacharya and all his kith and kin who were lined up against him, aimed their bows at him and showered a hail of arrows at Arjuna’s still, just-come-out-of-bliss body. Arjuna didn’t even have a chance to open his eyes and see what was coming at him. In that post-transcended state, he breathed his last. Krishna meanwhile looked on at this scene with a mild look of amusement on his face, and that ever-present smirk on his lips and that all-knowing look in his eyes. Once Arjuna’s last rites were over with, and the Pandavas had promptly surrendered and accepted defeat at the hand of the Kauravas, Krishna went up to Vyasa and whispered in his ear, “You know what, I think we’d better re-write this whole section, otherwise what will happen to my Gita and the rest of the Mahabharata?”. And so it came to be. Another story, another yoga (or several actually) were the result. Krishna, needless to say, had to step in to reverse time to just before the Manduka was rolled out. Arjuna lived again. The first thing he did when he came back to life was to throw his valued Manduka into the raging waters of the Ganges (and parts of it into the Yamuna as well) and never looked at another rubber mat for the rest of his living days. He realized that he had to PERMANENTLY get OFF that infernal mat and abandon his poseur attitude, no matter how fine his Vira I, II and III (and let’s not forget IV) looked and felt. He also gave up on all notions of Samadhi and potential Moksha as he knew that if he dropped everything (and especially his prized Gandiva), and sat down to wait for the answers to come, his very existence would be at stake. That would not do. He had to help his brothers win the war. Just as he was about to embark on this new chapter in his life, he was overcome with a sense of utter dejection and despondence at the thought of what he might do to his nearest and dearest. His Gandiva quivered in his hand, and he sank down in his chariot, filled with dread at what was about to happen. Seeing this, Krishna, still holding that smirk, stepped up to him and offered his words of advice, starting off with a strong rebuke. “Get up, you eunuch!! This does not behoove you”…………………….

  3. This puts any argument from “perfection” or “principle” as a reason not to vote OR to vote for a third party candidate with no chances of making ANY difference to shame….

    “One great thing about being a black person in this country, and one who’s lived for a number of decades, is that you get to experience a reality that makes abstractions ring hollow. “Oh, politicians, they are all the same” rings very hollow when you can remember when some politicians released police dogs and fire hoses on some people who were peacefully protesting and different politicians sent the national guard to help school children make their way through a mob to go to school. “All politicians lie” rings hollow when some politicians said separate but equal was just fine and some said it warped the souls of young black children to be told they were not fit to sit next to their classmates. To those who think there is no difference between Obama and Romney, tell that to the child of gay parents who finally has a retort to a bullying bigoted child on the playground that says your parents are sick. Tell that to the literally millions – imagine that, millions – of your fellow Americans who will lose health insurance and thus possibly a chance at health and life if Romney abolishes the Affordable Act.

    Being black, you had no luxury of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. If A was one percent better than B, you went with A, because progress was only going to happen if you went forward, no matter how slowly. If black people in the south had waited for perfection, they wouldn’t have started with buses and toilets. (No, if I can’t have the same income, no thanks, no progress for me. ) So people died to sit where they wanted on a bus, and then died to eat in a restaurant, or to drink from a water fountain, and then died to go to school, and died to get into schools, and died to vote. Other people died to have unions and a minimum wage And women died to own property and to vote. And many still die to exercise their right to a safe and legal abortion when a clinic is blown up by someone who says they believe in the sanctity of life.

    I used to argue with white middle class feminists who similarly brooked no compromise with oppression, who wanted no half steps. They had the luxury of waking up to feminism when their husbands of twenty years ran off with the paralegal or the new MBA in their office. Black or Latina women who then, as now, got up at 5 AM to get to a job cleaning in a hotel or an office somewhere, who make less than men doing the same job can’t vote for Gary Johnson or some perfect progressive whose ideals line up 100% with theirs. They have to choose between the person who signed the Lily Ledbetter Act for fair pay and the person whose idea of feminism is his multi millionaire wife getting to stay home and care for their five sons. Bully for her, but it’s not a “choice” that very many Americans can afford.

    Please, any Facebook friends who are thinking of not voting, or voting for a protest candidate, or are frustrated by the lack of progress on issues you care most about – think of all the people whose patience and blood and sacrifice you make a mockery of with your self righteous impatience and rectitude. Most people don’t have the choice to sit anything out, or make a symbolic protest. An inch forward might not seem much to you, but to many, even that one inch might lift their head above the rising water and literally save their life. These peoples’ lives depend on you thinking of them, and choosing for the common good the candidate who might improve their lives – even just a little bit.”

    -Gwendolyn Parker

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