Can Yoga Create a Culture of Social and Political Engagement?

On November 1, Matthew Remski initiated a conversation about yoga, politics and the 2012 presidential election that lit up the blogosphere. YogaBrains played a significant role in this dialogue, gathering together some of the brightest minds in yoga to talk, in pragmatic terms, about whether we should as a growing culture and demographic endorse Barack Obama. Since then Matthew reflected upon the questions this challenge raised, specifically what role does yoga play in our communal and political life.

In this regard, Matthew wrote, “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.”

Offering post-election commentary YogaBrain Derek Beres wrote about his vision of yoga’s place in politics: “My ‘practice’ is defined by the life I live, not the 90 minutes I spend a few times a week exercising. This, inevitably, means engagement with the culture I live in. That calm force you cultivate must be put into action in the country that helped create an environment for you to freely practice your spiritual ambitions…selflessness cannot be achieved by running from your country’s policies because you don’t agree with them. If you believe in something, sometimes you have to fight for it.”

To this end, Matthew concluded his piece here on YogaBrains with the following statement: “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.”

In the effort to continue this rich dialogue we asked two YogaBrains and Carol Horton (a social scientist and yoga writer) to reflect on a single potent question: Can yoga build a culture here in North America that supports active participation in politics? By extension, can a yoga studio become a community rather than simply (and only) a space for people to practice in isolation (on their little 2×6 rectangular yoga pods) amidst a crowd of fellow internally focused practitioners? And, just as importantly, can yoga act as a catalyst for social change?

“Two elements that made American slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture; the reduction of the slave to less than human status by the use of racial hatred, with that relentless clarity based on color, where white was master, black was slave.”—Howard Zinn, A Peoples History Of The United States

Let go. Release. Liberate. Emancipate. Resolve. Unshackle: The words we use to explain how victims of trauma begin healing are similar to those used to describe people and nations moving forward from racism towards equality. When I first saw the singular word of Obama’s campaign slogan, “Forward,” it brought tears to my eyes in a way I was unprepared for. It hit me on a profound level of what that means to a people and country with such a violent, shameful past. It means letting go and forgiving, the willingness to evolve even when things are difficult. It has connotations that move beyond the message of economic success and signal the message of equality and healing for everyone.

In explaining where we are, politically speaking, in this country, nothing needs to be proved with statistics or by crunching numbers to realize what made this last election so uplifting. If we can momentarily, deeply and symbolically look at who we are and what we’ve been through as a nation, we can move forward. If we look at where we’ve come from and acknowledge the wounds we’ve acquired, it’s not difficult to notice the analogies of how the United States itself is a trauma survivor. If we think clearly, deeply and critically about the extent to which racism has influenced this country, we can acknowledge this trauma. The injuries and damage, and how it affects an entire country, may be metaphorical, yet is extremely similar to personal trauma—an injury that has inundated the country in the same way a traumatic experience overwhelms a person’s capacity to properly function. America’s wound is both emotional and physical, just as on a personal level.

America’s trauma of oppression began with the racist institution of human slavery; specifically, Africans turned into property by white Americans. We have not shed that identity completely, despite right wing claims. Racism still exists in the identical ways that trauma gets embedded on a cellular level. Trauma’s effects live in the body, stored in our tissues, muscles and neurons. Likewise, racism still inhabits the body of this country, playing a major role in determining how minorities and especially African Americans are viewed and treated.

A little research into the prison system and who, how and why humans are incarcerated provides a sobering reminder  for any critically-thinking citizen. A look at the white, right wing shows the mindset of slave owner mentality. Those people are still here, lodged in our national tissues. Fortunately, we are slowly working them out of our body. The racist rhetoric espoused by conservatives like Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum—the list goes on—offers us a glimpse into the ideological brain of hate, reflecting a warped attitude that all is equal and the American dream is available to everyone. There are even conservatives, such as the despicable Anne Coulter, who believe that racism in the US today is a myth invented by liberal whites. There is a new delusional attitude that racism, not to mention sexism and homophobia, do not exist anymore, that failure and success is simply a ‘choice.’ This is what racism looks like today.

Stephen Colbert jokes that he as a conservative doesn’t see color. Yet the new color blindness claimed by the right is racist in every way. It might feel different than the racism of slavery or the racism that the civil rights movement struggled against, but it’s merely wearing a new disguise.

The election of 2012, like that of 2008, offered a cathartic release for many of us, the ‘letting go’ trauma victims feel when they dispense of the pain they were holding onto. This is one of the many ways we work through this dysfunction. Trauma is the pain, hurt and anxiety we can’t let go of. Our national pain may be slightly unconscious, but when people collectively move to work through the injustices of the past, healing occurs. Hope is a powerful tool. As with traumatized individuals regaining a sense of control, strength and self, our country, with its history of abuse, can do the same. Most Obama supporters see the world in obvious contrast to the conservatives who have a color-blind attitude. The 50% who voted for four more years see prejudice, discrimination and institutionalized racism as unfair social obstacles in our society.

We have a lot of painful history to work through; by no means is electing an African American president going to resolve that. But it is a way to continue to heal and downsize the scope of where racism flourishes. Understanding that political or social change is not always a permanent, etched-in-stone victory. There are setbacks, as in personal growth. We have, however, grown from this election. By not allowing conservatives to define racism and inequality in the near future, we have a chance to heal and focus. This is one small step forward in coming to terms with a traumatic past, and helps set an agenda for social change.  The 2012 election was as therapeutic as it was political. There’s no utopia around the corner; there is now a way to see and imagine a world that can be more just and fair.

Get involved. Make a difference and move…forward.

Within human memory our relationship to the body has been at the center of all social, moral, religious and political life. We’ve enslaved people according to skin color, passed laws dictating the reproductive rights of entire populations according to gender. But we’ve also overturned centuries of belief due to biological research, even revised our understanding of the genealogy of the human race according to findings in the biological sciences.

Today, the body is still a vital and persistent issue in politics. What we do with our bodies, who our bodies have sex with, whether or not our bodies reproduce according to how some religions think god intended it—even how a body is labeled under the binary system of male/female are dictated by politics. Astonishingly, we are currently debating what role god plays in how a woman’s body responds to rape. The body lies at the heart of legislation regarding food, climate change, housing, reproductive rights, who can or cannot be married and what our children should be taught about the origins of life. What we think about the body and our relationship to it—including the rights of bodies other than our own—defines our values and therefore determines our politics.

Values have their root in what we think about the world.

If contemporary yoga practice is about embodiment, about exploring and re-inhabiting all of the places in ourselves that we have, through trauma, learned to shut down, dissociate from and ignore, then the same goes for the world we live in: the home of the body. The body needs a home, a community and natural resources to survive and flourish. In my mind, if yoga is to create a real culture here in America then its valuation of the body must evolve into constructing a social philosophy of active participation. Yoga must make a better home for the body, just as it seeks to make our internal experience of the body safer, more at ease, and generous.

Just as embodied practices like yoga asana have taught us that the suffering of the mind must also be addressed within the body, that the two cannot be separated in the therapeutic process, we must also address the social, political and environmental conditions that the body lives within in order to effectively heal ourselves. The body cannot be separated from the world it has arisen from and continues to be supported by. Embodied asana practice, under this lens, is about the interdependence of body, mind and world.

This is the essential piece: If yoga seeks to address suffering then its understanding of the true conditions of suffering, and its therapeutic methods, must extend beyond private domains of inner experience and seek to change the external conditions of ecology, relationship and community. I think yoga has much more potential than simply acting as personal therapy, or in its less ideal moments, as an analgesic. Yoga culture should make a better home for the body—for all bodies. This gestures toward my larger mission to create an ideological shift in the spiritual zeitgeist that sees the necessity of political activism and community building, that suffering doesn’t just get wished away on our meditation cushions or yoga mats, but necessitates becoming an active participant in the world. This is a much more holistic approach, one that extends beyond private internally-focused practices and actively reaches out into the world that made us. It becomes a social form of healing and transformation. It becomes a practice of living in relationship, of tending to not only our own bodies but also our body connections—other human beings, animals—and the natural resources that sustain our very lives. Yoga becomes a way of being in the world, rather than escaping it. It becomes an act of healing rather than anesthesia. This is the culture that I want to construct, one that supports the truth of the body.

My proposal: Let’s start some community (town hall style) meetings in our neighborhood yoga studios, where we discuss local issues, see where we fall on them, build consensus and then become a force of advocacy for the issues we can agree upon. As this builds steam we can extend it to not just local government but state legislation as well. Yogis can put their embodied values to work in the world, fighting for the environment, for the rights of other bodies, for better food, cleaner air and water and better schools for our children. If I, in my most revisionary mode, translate karma as ‘social action’ (free of the metaphysical brownie points that have historically chased it, as well as the caste system enforcing state-endorsed ideology), then let’s put a little more karma in our yoga and a little less escapist asceticism—most of us live in urban environments and communities for chrissakes! Let’s engage in a yoga of active participation that actually addresses the true conditions of suffering in our world. Let’s advocate for this body, our bodies, for the only home our bodies have ever known. Let’s stand up for one another and be a community.

Whether or not you’re happy with the outcome of this week’s election (as I most certainly am), I hope we can agree on a few key facts:

1. Obama won because his campaign was exceptionally successful in reaching potential supporters and mobilizing them to vote.
2. If untold numbers of volunteers and millions of ordinary voters had not shown up and done this work, he would have lost.
3. This shows that political participation matters.

Of course . . . the American political system doesn’t offer anything close to the range of options for meaningful political participation that I’d like. I want more viable parties, more intelligent political discourse, a repeal of Citizens United, and much more.

That said, I’m aware that simply having the opportunity to vote as we did on Tuesday represents a valuable right that millions of people don’t have. Even if it’s far from ideal, it’s still important. We shouldn’t take it for granted.

Of course, there are many ways in which we can participate politically beyond voting. Turning out to vote is simply the most basic place to start. My hope is that by the next major election in 2016, no one will need to spend time convincing yoga practitioners that they should, in fact, bother to vote. Instead, I hope that we can take that most elemental (if vital) form of political engagement for granted, and send our energies in more innovative directions.

If we’re going to get there by then, however, time to start on that project is now.

Obstacles and Opportunities
If you’re like me, you’ve felt despondent (if not abjectly depressed) about politics throughout the 2000s. Sure, there have been some uplifting moments, particularly if you were an Obama supporter in 2008, or even this past Tuesday night. But mainly, it’s been a nonstop bummer: W. 9/11. The Iraq War. Guantanamo. Abu Ghraib. Global warming. Hurricane Katrina. The Great Recession. “Legitimate rape.” And so on and so forth . . .

Who wants to deal with it? Just thinking about such issues can feel so draining and depressing! So why bother, particularly when there seems to be so little that we as individuals can do to impact such huge problems?

I believe that yoga can play a positive role in helping us grapple with such questions. How? Basically, by connecting the inner resources that we’re already cultivating on the mat to the body politic in a deliberate and determined way.

What does that mean? Here’re a few concrete thoughts and suggestions:

1)     The more that we practice, the more we start to experience the interconnectedness of life. We realize that there really is a mind/body connection. We become more aware of how what we eat affects us. We begin to clear out some of the blockages and debris that’s built up in our body/mind due to the pain and trauma we’ve experienced through negative relationships with others.

While the default mode in the yoga community is to work this only on a very private, individual level, the logical next step is to expand the process out to connect with our communities, our nation, and the world. Here in the U.S., our individual bodies collectively comprise the American body politic. We are part of something larger than ourselves, not simply metaphysically, but right here on the ground. Experiencing that interconnectedness expands and deepens our practice—and, consequently, our lives as a whole.

2)     Yoga teaches us to stay present through both the pleasurable and the uncomfortable periods of our practice. Over time, this helps us to become less emotionally reactive and experience more equanimity. We practice staying centered through what we come to recognize as the inevitably changing sensations flowing through our body/minds—feelings that are sometimes exhilarating, sometimes peaceful, and sometimes scary.

Again, this is typically understood as simply an individual benefit. But it offers an incredible resource to the body politic that we’re naturally a part of as well. We can use our on-the-mat practice to stay centered and grounded as we learn about such disturbing issues as global warming. Our practice then expands to the work of bringing those qualities of non-reaction and equanimity into a body politic that’s sick with anger, fear, fanaticism, and other forms of negative emotional reactivity.

3)     Yoga helps cultivate our innate powers of discernment and intuition. We learn to listen more carefully to our quiet voice of inner knowing, which otherwise is so easily drowned out by the noise, stress, and fast pace of modern life. I’ve met many, many people whose practice provided them with the insight and determination necessary to make a needed change in their lives. (In fact, I’m one of them.) Moving forward to make such a change may be terrifying. But you start to know that yes, you do need to quit that job, end that relationship, kick that habit, start that business, or whatever it takes to move on to the next step in your life. And your continued practice provides you with the courage needed to move forward.

So, here we are: members of a body politic that’s confronting multiple crises that are hurting us and our planet now and threaten to destroy our future completely. What’s the next step? What do we need to give up—or start new? How do we engage and make a difference in ways that are right for us? How do we have the courage to open our eyes to what’s happening? How do we rally the strength to invest in working for positive change even as we realize that we can’t control any outcomes?

Sounds like yoga to me.

Photo: We Have Overcome

8 Responses to “Can Yoga Create a Culture of Social and Political Engagement?”
  1. Louis Lemoynes says:

    I kind of disagree…

    I agree that it is important that yogi don’t choose to reclusive themselves from voting or from letting know clearly their opinion on “political stuff”, based on their belief that taking care of their spiritual navel is so much more important. Yet I don’t think that structuring yogi participation in politic is a good idea.

    Human history (which has a richer experience than the young American history, ahem… – Why being so nation-narcissist? I mean all nations have traumatic history… It’s a basic human fact, nothing more. Ask the German, the Jew, Russian, and so on and so forth. I know you are Americans and you want to deal with your stuff and you just came out of an exciting political event and your brain is full of adrenaline and I don’t know what else, but don’t worry! Everything will be fine… You will live and die like everyone else. Now breath…)

    So, human history has shown that every time a community structures itself, it turns bad after a while. We can already see this in the “yoga community” with the recent sex scandals (power position, sex scandal). Structured community implies that some people will be “in charge”. Which means that positions of “power” will be created and, yogi or not, I believe that the human nature is stronger. Hence, pretty quickly such positions will be occupied by people who crave for power (consciously and/or unconsciously). It’s just a fact of life. And from my point of view, it is being delusional to believe otherwise. Human beings are human beings. A yogi community won’t change that fact. Yogi are just humans.

    Something similar happened less than two thousand years ago with another community… What was its name again? Oh yes! The Christian community. Human beings with good intention who wanted to change the world with messages of love and kindness decided to create a structured community… And if I’m not wrong, one of his child communities is today very well structured and fights against evolution, science, gay marriage and I don’t know what else.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think it is very important that yogi, as non-yogi, take seriously their democratic right and fight for it. I agree that being a yogi doesn’t imply that I have to be only concerned by my “spiritual” navel. I agree that people that share a common position on specific issues temporally get together and join forces to fight. But creating a structured community of yogi!? Don’t we have enough of this kind of thing already?

    • Philip Steir says:


      Thank you for responding and taking the time to comment. Saying you kind of disagree is fine…perfect. Excellent. However, I’m not sure you had a proper understanding of what you were reading and or actually disagreeing with. We were all writing from the opinion and the question…notion…on how and if its even possible for yoga to create a culture where it can be involved or engaged…socially and politically. We all think itbis doable. None of us though expressed any interest in creating “structured community of yogi”.
      Thanks again….

      • Louis Lemoynes says:


        Thanks for your feedback; I appreciate it.
        I think I do understand what was at stake, but most probably I didn’t express myself clearly.
        You have been asked to express yourself on the following points:

        1) Can yoga build a culture here in North America that supports active participation in politics?
        2) By extension, can a yoga studio become a community rather than simply (and only) a space for people to practice in isolation (on their little 2×6 rectangular yoga pods) amidst a crowd of fellow internally focused practitioners?
        3) And, just as importantly, can yoga act as a catalyst for social change?

        To the first question, I would say maybe… But what is implied by “supports active participation in politics”? If it involves remembering people to vote, I’m OK with that. But if it involves, as some have suggested, to debate on some political subject at the yoga studio then I plainly say no (especially if the community look out for a consensus to then act on it). Because (and here is the meaning of my original post) then you create a situation where a group of people can exercise “power”. Some people with more charisma and with ease to speak might have a greater influence than those that don’t have such skill. Some people may convince privately other members of their opinion (with good intention) and this may also bias the so-called consensus.

        I understand the temptation… Yogi are used, one might even say trained, to observe themselves and try to avoid all the human bias that we have (let’s call this the yogic super power). So wouldn’t it be great if everybody practice yoga? The world would certainly be a better place. People would make better decisions, less selfish ones. Wouldn’t they?

        No! It’s one thing if everyone come to embrace yoga and this then reflects in how we inter-relate to each other and to our environment. But to try to force it by creating communities that will use their “yogic super power” to choose wisely a subject to push forward is totally different. The moment you do this, you are creating the equivalent of a structure and it will become more evident if you succeed. Because then the community of “active” yogi will grow and you will need more and more infra structure to support it. At some point some permanent positions will be created and there you go, you’ve just created something that will attract people that crave for power. And they will come inevitably into these positions. From my point of you, it’s equivalent to put the car in front of the horses. It’s artificially building a community on the wrong assumption that the “yogic super power” will protect this community to follow the footstep of the 1% and other communities that was build with good intention before. I believe it doesn’t work like this.

        For example, I was able to witness at my yoga center a fight for a position between two postulants. Both had more then ten years of yoga and meditation practices, both had a wonderfully Zen attitude that makes you want to stick around and listen to what they say. But suddenly, their true nature surfaces, because both of them wanted this position badly. And it wasn’t very nice to watch… The fact that they are practicing yoga for more then ten years doesn’t change the fact that they are just human. And in such situation, their true nature surface once more. And of course, both of them were over-rationalizing their behavior (and are still now that one has won and the other has lost and left the center).

        So, this is why I don’t think it’s a good idea to build such structure. I know you don’t consider this as structures but I don’t really understand why… That’s what they are from my point of view. It’s a way to organize yogi as an active political community. Even if it’s light and good intentioned at the beginning (Is it? Or is it just another ego call?), if it works, it will quickly become more structured, probably just like Christianity.

        Now, the second question asks precisely if we should transform yoga studio into such “structured” (my wording) active community. So, I wasn’t dreaming last night when I answer the question.

        As for the last question: can yoga act as a catalyst for social change? Probably… If more and more people embrace yoga as a life style, it will come naturally. But if the question is “can yoga BE USED as a catalyst for social change”. Yes it can, but I think we shouldn’t because it will only become another religion or another structure of organized people that think they know better.

        • Carol Horton says:

          Louis: I think that you raise a lot of important and valid points. Speaking only for myself, my interest is not at all in creating a unitary “structure” of poltiicized yogis. I agree that it would risk all the pitfalls you mention and more.

          However, I am very interested in shifting the culture of the American yoga community from one that’s heavily invested in individualism and consumerism – to a new paradigm that’s actively interested in exploring and experimenting with creative ways of building community and engaging with society and politics.

          What I suggest in my post is that we have a great resource to work with in our yoga practices. My vision is that if more and more practitioners become interested in positive social engagement, we’ll see more and more valuable initiatives blooming. It won’t be an organized “structure'”; but it will be an identifiable Zeitgeist. Or at least that’s my hope.

          • Louis Lemoynes says:


            I hear you and I agree with your vision. I’m in favor of encouraging people to use the awareness they are nurturing in their yoga practice to all life situations including politic. And I’m already rocking the boat to encourage such awakening (“prise de conscience”) within the yoga community I frequent (as well as with friends and family member).

            I do understand and agree with your hope that a shift of paradigm occurs within the yoga communities so that people come to realize that they need not to live a reclusive life (they don’t want it anyway, otherwise they won’t be wearing the last fashion yoga wear) to blossom “spiritually”. Yes, to some extent the world is an illusion, yes everything will come to pass. But unless ones really want to live a secluded life (which is also a valid choice), ones owe to oneself, to the environment and to communities at large to engage oneself with the best of one skill and to speak out loud what one feel to be right (as an individual). And that implies voting and signing petitions in favor of change we believe in. But all these choices are individual choices. I strongly fear choices driven/guided by some community for reasons I’ve already said in my previous posts. But we agree on this too. Thanks for your feedback, I greatly appreciate it! =)

        • Philip Steir says:

          Thanks for responding once again. I do think yoga can create a culture of social and political engagement. People practicing yoga can organize, engage, get active, march, support political candidates etc and not be in fear of it turning into a religion. This to me is just an excuse to remain apathetic about the world. I’m also of the opinion and strongly so…that taking a political and social stand against racism, sexism, homophobia, speciesism etc and fighting oppression will not create a “structure of organized people who think they know better”. That’s basically what I expressed in my essay here on Yoga Brains. I also wrote that voting for Obama had its theraputic facet and purpose as well….in healing a nation with a horrible history of violence, oppression and discrimination. For me yoga does not stand in the way of people wanting to fight against any of these injustices. We all need to heal and find ways to feel better but we also all need to engage personally in politics and social activism if we want our lives, society, get better. thanks…

          • Louis Lemoynes says:


            I’m not so sure that I understand what you are proposing then. Maybe I should read your essay and try to find some cue (sorry, it was published a while back and I did not had time yet to read it). Or maybe we are just saying the same thing: to try to make understand to “yogi” in general that voting and being politically active is not “evil”.

            I was under the impression that some of you were also suggesting to go further and bring the political debate in the yoga studio, forcing thus its way in. It’s one thing to encourage people to realize that they can think by themselves and act on it, but it’s a totally different thing to try to “force” it. Because in this last case, you have, in my opinion, a power game. And you are not practicing yoga at all… (My opinion)

            Also, I don’t see my position as “just an excuse to remain apathetic about the world”. I’m rather active to the extent of time I have to give on such issues. And I’m encouraging people to do the same. But I don’t try to force it on them. I don’t judge them if they think differently. I don’t think that I have the truth. I just think that it’s important, for example, to protest against making abortion illegal.

            The position I’m presenting might look cold to you when compared to your idea, just as after putting your finger in hot water, warm water seems cold to you. Well, it’s not. It’s pretty warm from my perspective compare to being apathetic or being “super activism”. It’s the middle path… 😉

            Yes I think it’s important to vote, yes I’m encouraging people to do it. But I won’t bring the discussion in the yoga studio. In fact, I think that voting and being politically active has noting to do with yoga. We talk about it here, because there is this trend where yogi should look for the true self and detach from the world. That’s the only reason we are talking about this right now. Because WE want to change this view, because WE think it’s better to change it. But WE may be wrong, I don’t know for sure what is best (if there is such thing anyway), and I don’t think that anyone knows. Maybe THEY are right. Maybe we should detach from the world as much as we can to try and reach these subtle state of consciousness. Maybe it’s the only way to reach them. So, who am I to impose my vision on others? My instinct tells me that both are possible: it is possible to be politically active (to some extent, I mean I won’t run for president, not in my blood) and to find enough inner peace to reach these subtle states of consciousness. But until I can “preach” by example, what I’m saying are just words. Meaningless words… Have to run… Have a good day!

  2. WisdomLover says:

    In my opinion, Obama has been a total failure, but it’s probably better that people at least have the perception he’s a progressive candidate, even when that perception dissolves in light of the facts.

    However, if you want to effect social change, pay attention to occupy. Only accept payment in cash. Don’t support the commercial banks. Support other local businesses, get involved in activism, stay out of politics. Think local. Offer yoga at your community farmer’s markets. Make farmers markets a place of social discussion.

    Support Yoga Activist, prison yoga projects, free yoga at libraries, vets, etc.

    Think transition. Transition away from fossil fuels, food system, commercialism. How can you be a part of that transition? Form your own community, connect with others, don’t force it on your own yoga studio.

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