Once upon a time there was a battle on a field in a far away land. An angst-filled warrior started to lose his nerve and asked his charioteer what to do. What followed was 700 verses of sublime instruction which became the Bhadgavad Gita: a handbook for self-realization and a guide to taking action in the world.
In essence, the Gita pleads for the renunciation of selfishness in thought, word and action. It’s a lesson that we shape ourselves and our world by what we believe and think and act on.
The roots of yoga are inherently selfless and activist. The roots of yoga are political. But, somehow in the two millennia since the Bhagavad Gita was created, yoga has drifted from these roots. Most of this distancing has taken place in the past 20 years, as yoga has ascended in popular culture. “Political yoga” has become an oxymoron.
In the TIME Magazine intro to their own Person of the Year issue (which inspired this post, obviously), they said, “The two decades beginning in 1991 witnessed the greatest rise in living standards that the world has ever known. Credit was easy, complacency and apathy were rife, and street protests looked like pointless emotional sideshows — obsolete, quaint, the equivalent of cavalry to mid-20th-century war.”
It’s no coincidence that this paralleled the increased popularity of yoga in North America. People had the leisure time and money to develop their bodies and minds.
yoga and politics: together at last
2011 started off on a slightly different note, however. On January 1, Briarpatch (a grassroots political magazine published on the Canadian prairies) posted an interview with Michael Stone. This wasn’t the kind of magazine that wrote about yoga or interviewed yoga teachers – it was known for strong, independent writing about social justice issues and community leaders. He told them:
It’s too easy to dismiss yoga as just a narcissistic form of physical exercise, which of course it can be, but so can anything else. There is some part of us that wants to be fully present, that’s not just interested in relating to people electronically or maintaining a fixed image of ourselves… Connecting to the body politic in a way that is grounded and creative begins with my own body and how it’s looked after, and whether I too am awake.
But basically, things in the yoga world were business as usual. In March, Derek Beres lamented the yoga community’s lack of political discussion. In a Mind Body Green article, he reflected on an incident at a yoga studio which highlighted “an uncomfortable trend: not even allowing political discussion into the yoga conversation, as if the very word was toxic. While the way that politics are practiced in our culture may indeed be poisonous, yogis are part of a community that we desperately need to be engaged in this particular discussion.”
“The ethical and moral principles of yoga are essential components of the practice,” he said. “At some point we have to put those principles into action in the world.” Hell yeah.
The yoga and politics conversation continued at the Yoga Journal conference at Estes Park. Tias Little told Yoga Modern that yoga and politics are “nonexistent.” He observed an underlying agreement that the two topics stay away from each other (and his interview is actually a good example of why some yoga teachers shouldn’t talk about politics).
And then Occupy Wall Street happened.
unity, equality and balance
The occupation shook things up, and it had an impact on the yoga community. Yoga was there right from the start, although it was more of a fun activity. As occupations popped up around North America, it was common practice to find a community yoga class.
The Kundalini (3HO) community has had a quiet but persistent presence at OWS. They communicate and organize through their Occupy Yoga Facebook page and Twitter. Even after their altar was destroyed during the mid-November police raids, the community has committed to being involved.
Still, there was some reluctance to talk about how the yoga community “should” get involved with OWS, as Carol Horton noted on Yoga Modern.
Then leaders in the greater yoga community, such as Seane Corn, Russel Simmons, Elena Brower and Michael Stone started talking about and showing up at OWS. After Seane Corn’s OWS appearance, a post on the Yoga Journal Facebook fanpage asked, “Does yoga have a place in this debate?” The responses were mixed.
“Yoga is about unity, equality and balance,” commented one person. “The situation that our country is in is a direct result of the imbalance of power and wealth in our society and we NEED strong, influential, outspoken people like Seane to help us recognize this so we can unite and move forward from a place of understanding and compassion rather than greed and exploitation.”
Another commentor pointed out the contradiction of yoga’s presence in a political demonstration. “In case you hadn’t noticed, Yoga IS BIG BUSINESS… You can wrap it all up in a recycled bow and call it whatever you want, but it is capitalism. I am all for speaking out for your beliefs and standing up for your values but I like to keep my yoga practice out of politics and politics out of my practice.”
It was official: the yoga and politics conversation had become mainstream.
2011 was the year yogis took to the streets, in alliance with mass demonstrations happening around the world. However, there were many other expressions of this alliance. Protesting took many forms: blogging, writing, giving talks.
OWS is the most extreme example, but the yogi protester is making its presence known quietly and with determination in other communities, in other forms. In Toronto, after the cycling death of yoga teacher Jenna Morrison, the community came together to mourn – and demand change to make Toronto streets safer for cyclists. The yoga community became involved in a campaign to enforce side guard on trucks, working together with Member of Parliament, Olivia Chow. They petitioned city hall and informed people about the dangers for cyclists.
“In modern culture, the yoga community hasn’t had a lot of political cohesion in putting forward our collective values with a single voice,” Matthew Remski told The Grid TO. “This event created a necessity to do so. A lot of people have reactivated their social responsibility.”
As the Gita proves, self-realization and activism don’t need to be separate. 2011 was the year that yoga started to return to its roots. Just as OWS has created a shift in the collective consciousness and our understanding of the world, it’s also shifted the conversation in the yoga community. Let’s see what 2012 holds for us.