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