The upcoming Canadian election has got me taking many deep breaths, mumbling mantras under my breath while reading the news, and fighting the urge to take a long savasana until everyone goes to the polls on October 19.
Of course, checking out is not an option, even if the pre-election noise and frenzy are stressful and anxiety-inducing. This is the most important election in my lifetime, and I feel more engaged and invested than I have in previous elections. In short, what’s going on here is that Canada, for almost a decade, has been governed by a conservative and fear-mongering leader, Stephen Harper, whose policies undermine democracy, silence dissent, threaten the environment, and dismantle programs that support women’s health and rights.
These regressive policies are changing the social and political climate of my country, and they’re also an affront to my personal value system, which is informed by yoga. I have strongly aligned myself with the “Anyone But Harper” camp (for an introduction to the parties and Canadian electoral process for non-Canadians, see this summary in The Guardian), without having any strong allegiance to a particular party.
Since the election was called in early August, I have been obsessively following news stories, relying mainly on my social networks to bring me the latest updates. I devour every link that I come across and pump relevant hashtags into my veins. My social networks are a mix of left-leaning activists, artists, creatives, and yoga/healing practitioners, Canadian and American (with a few global influences). And at some point I noticed something: A flurry of articles and memes were filling my feeds, but few of them were coming from the yoga/healing arts segments.
In fact, among the Canadian yoga people that I am connected with, there was barely any acknowledgement that a pivotal election looms before us. It was business as usual. Even community leaders who have been vocal about social movements and progressive politics in the past – their feeds were full of workshops, projects, and baby photos.
Things have changed in the past few days (I’m writing this with one week until election day), and I’m seeing more conversation in the social media sphere, including this “yogic perspective” by Colin Hall, a yoga teacher in Regina, Saskatchewan. But it also got me wondering: are these conversations happening offline? Are Canadian yoga communities talking about the upcoming election, along with democracy, human rights, and the environment? Or have they not even noticed?
This lack of acknowledgement is a far cry from the 2012 US presidential election, where dialogue, opinions, and campaigns abounded. Off The Mat launched Yoga Votes and offered yoga classes in the spa oasis at Republican and Democratic conventions, to much public scrutiny. Even IAYB got caught up in the action, despite not being able to actually even vote in the election. Nevertheless, from the comforts of Canada, IAYB publicly endorsed Barack Obama in a long and passionate blog post (which actually made me cringe when I re-read it–what pomposity!).
All this happened during the height of a heated and rather polarizing conversation about whether yoga is inherently progressive (the general consensus: yoga is politically neutral at best and a completely ineffective form of activism at worst). Things have changed in the past three years.
This time around, IAYB isn’t going to endorse any candidate or party (because, tbh, I haven’t even decided who I’m going to vote for). I’m also not trying to mobilize the “yoga vote” (a phrase that makes me puke in my mouth a little). IAYB does, however, endorse voting – and voting strategically (see VoteTogether.ca, an amazing resource for how to defeat the Conservatives in ridings across Canada).
So how are yoga people talking about the election?
I still wanted to know if and where yoga practitioners are talking about the upcoming election. Nine percent of Canadians practice yoga (actually a higher percentage than American practitioners), which is more than 3 million people. That’s a sizable demographic, and one which, of course, intersects with other demographics (yoga practitioners are also millennials, parents, seniors, representing many classes, ethnicities, and political leanings).
In the spirit of curiousity, I reached out to a handful of Canadian yoga teachers and studio owners to see how they’re doing it, and what they’re thinking about. This isn’t an investigation into the nature of yoga–what I’m interested in is how yoga practitioners who identify as politically progressive embody their politics. How do their practices and their politics intersect?
I didn’t talk to any conservative-leaning practitioners to lend “balance” to this post. I’m not interested in right-wing views, whether they come from yoga practitioners or others. I know that my lefty, feminist, body-positive politics attract other practitioners who have similar leanings, and that’s okay with me.
These four teachers, studio owners, thinkers, and leaders are a mere sample of the voices and perspectives out there in various communities. They in no way represent the whole. But here are some brave leaders, willing to speak out, in their own thoughtful and thought-provoking words.
(yoga teacher, Queen Street Yoga, Kitcherner, ON; instructor, University of Waterloo)
I would hope that yogis immersed in the practice are mindful of the long view, and of the fundamental interconnectedness of everything. I hope they vote as action, rather than reaction; on principle, rather than on habit or fear or being manipulated by ads.
The yoga vote ought to be as variable as the Canadian vote ideally–because when we can easily identify a prototypical yogi and say how she will vote, we are squashing diversity and access to the practice, really. I’m a tree-hugging NDP voter, but I want Conservative and Liberal voters in my classes as well as the Greens. Otherwise my yoga is probably limited and limiting.
Many yoga studios (including the one I teach at) are socially progressive and attuned to the politics of land, identity, and access. Possibly this mindset hews more closely to the politics of certain candidates and parties than others, but everyone is on their own journey–not in a relativistic way, but in recognition that for some yogis, the environment is primary, while other yogis struggle through poverty and are about “pocketbook issues.” Immigrant yogis have some views on foreign policy that are different from older yogis, whose views on social entitlements are different from younger yogis, who have even different views on the ratio of health care spending to education.
This is where I think yoga is at its best in Canada: opening itself to diverse practitioners with diverse views, but coming together on the notion of imbrication in the world, passion of building our best society, each in the ways we most authentically, mindfully, and carefully consider.
(co-founder of Moksha Yoga, lives in Montreal, QC)
Moksha is a big family. Although we all unite around a shared ethic, we may approach the election discussion differently.
To me talking about the election in general is paramount. And although we aren’t talking specifically about candidates as a community we’re pretty engaged with non governmental organizations community-wide.
As a community, when we choose to focus on climate change (as we did when we supported the David Suzuki foundation during Speak your Peace one year), or support First Nations rights and protest pipelines, we start a conversation. We support what we believe in and this leads us to talking about the upcoming election.
The teachings of satya (living in truth), viveka (discernment), even aparigraha (not clinging to our ‘stuff’ or experiences) are in my opinion asking for political engagement and a movement toward seeing that we are a web of interconnection. When we see connection in everything, we naturally act with concern for the opinions of all. In this way yoga teaches democracy as well.
When reviewing applications for the teacher training or studio ownership we are looking for leaders that are passionate about sustainability, accessibility (which includes inspiration from the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights), and community. I could probably guess that there aren’t a lot of Harper supporters in the Moksha/Modo sangha!
(yoga teacher and author, Montreal, QC)
I believe that if we, as teachers, can succeed in helping our students stop the cycle of allowing fear to motivate how they operate and how they vote, then we can affect change on a massive, enlightenment-style level. So that’s my intention behind the Yoga Votes classes I’ll be teaching [in the weeks leading up to the election].
I’ll discuss issues like complacency and personal power, and relate them to chakra imbalances. The classes are designed to not only discuss how we avoid standing in our own personal power and using our voices to communicate clearly and speak for ourselves AND those who cannot use their own voices, but are sequenced to really work with the core of the body as well as the cervical spine and shoulders.
I basically remind students that if we don’t use our democratic right to ensure our other rights are protected, they will be taken away from us. I try to empower them to understand that voting isn’t a chore, it’s a privilege we have to a) honour the work our cultural warriors have done for us, and b) to practice using our voices and personal power so we get used to doing so.
Shulamit Ber Levtov
(psychotherapist and yoga teacher but really she supports yoginis who want to bridge the gap between practice and life so their everyday choices can reflect their deepest values, Merrickville, ON)
I get so very discouraged every election time because there seems to be a swell of energy toward voting, and a resulting condemnation of those who do not vote. In between elections I don’t observe the same fervour for other, small-p political activities. To me, participation in those is the measure of engaged citizenry, not voting once every so often.
Autonomy is a key principle in my life and for me, government didn’t fit in with that, and therefore, neither did electoral politics. But I’m not a “fuck you” individualist. So as I thought more, I saw that the principles of freedom (or autonomy, or non-coercion), equality, mutual aid (or that good old term those of my age learned from Sesame Street: cooperation) and solidarity made for a good combination. In other words: anarchism. Here’s a cute but illuminating quiz that can help folks get clearer on what I (and many, but not all, other anarchists) think anarchism is.
I think the yogic principle of ahimsa is best embodied politically through anarchism, as are the yogic and spiritual ideals of personal responsibility and interconnectedness. Most recently I have been studying principled nonviolence and have come to understand the value of “constructive program,” or, as Gandhi is supposed to have famously said, being the change you want to see in the world. I don’t want to “smash the State” (obstructive program, in other words, protests and direct resistance) but rather I want to build the world I want.
To me, anarchism seems to be to be the political philosophy that supports this best. I wish that the energy that was devoted to elections and voting would be redirected toward constructive program, so that, rather than trying to vote in the right people and hoping they will do as we have asked and they have promised, we organize constructively, locally and through direct democracy, so that we can birth the world of our dreams. (And I’m clear that not everyone has the same dreams, so perhaps there will be a wide range of smaller, self-organizing communities–who can nevertheless live cooperatively with one another–from which citizens are free to choose as the best embodiment of their own, personal vision.)
What you can do
- Vote! Register with Elections Canada. Double check to make sure you’re registered.
- Inform yourself on the major parties’ platforms (this is a good resource and so is this).
- Learn about the dynamics of your own riding and pledge to vote strategically, if necessary to defeat your local Conservative candidate.
- Relieve the tension of this stressful election by coming together in community (yoga! or something like this event here in Victoria) and partying on with other Canadians, no matter the results.