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.
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.