off the mat & into the republican national convention: the whole yoga service/politics thing gets confused
Oof, so the Republican National Convention happened this week! The only thing more embarrassing than Clint Eastwood’s rambling and incoherent speech was the Huffington Oasis, an Off The Mat, Into The World collaboration with the Huffington Post. The Oasis offered up massages, yoga classes, organic food and smoothies for RNC delegates and media.
OTM stated their intention in an Elephant Journal article: “The Oasis was designed to provide the politicians, media, etc. a refuge where, instead of grabbing a Red Bull and burger between sessions, they could come to reconnect to their bodies, minds and intentions in an environment providing sustainable methods for grounding, health and healing in an otherwise supercharged environment….”
I’ve been paying attention to this strange coupling all week, but have only worked up the energy to post about it now. A couple of days ago, I joined forces with The Babarazzi to point out the inherent paradox and contradictions of this essential oil-scented yoga spa oasis, which is so earnest, naïve and misguided it makes my heart ache.
After having a presence at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, OTM and Huffington Post decided to set up the Oasis at the conventions for both parties this year. The underlying belief is that a dedicated space for massages, yoga, facials and organic food will help people “make better decisions.”
The whip-smart commentors on Baba’s post ripped the Oasis apart:
“This kind of an effort mostly magnifies the OTM brand. So, congratulations OTM on the advertising coup, but no, you don’t speak for me or for yoga even if I do support the mission. I would have no problem at all if they went there to provide yoga services as individuals. To go in the name of OTM, even if they do support both parties is troubling.” (buffyproject)
“A free foot rub and a kale salad will only serve to re-charge the batteries of those Randian meanies. As much as Paul Ryan could not turn me into a homophobe by giving me a luxurious Indian head massage, we can’t be so naive as to think simple kindness has any effect in this situation.” (Sheryl)
“It seems that the activism OTM and other orgs are engaged in is about service not about political action. Political action aligned with yogic values, in my mind, means addressing structures that enable economic inequality, environmental devastation, racial and gender inequality etc to grow and persist… we should not confuse yoga service efforts with political action. They are very different beasts and it is dangerous to lead yoga practitioners (who are often white and come from relative privilege) to think that political action is sharing yoga class with kids from the hood while they have no awareness of the structures that create the hood in the first place or how their daily lives contribute to that system.” (BK)
But others provided more sympathetic takes (while underlining that the motive of the collaboration may be less about social change and more about promoting the OTM brand):
“My impression from Arianna is that the Oasis is as much as a sale as anything else at the convention – an opportunity to expose all attendees (not just the Senators/Govorners/etc) to a different lifestyle and perhaps get them to slow down and de-stress. These are people who DO have an impact our lives and if we can impact them, we take take one more step towards progress. No one is setting up a foundation so that yoga teachers can volunteer for republicans. It’s a convention. Arianna and Seane are essentially lobbying for their interests: holistic life, honesty, equality and more. If a few fat cats get their feet rubbed in the process, so be it.” (Corti)
It turns out, the yoga blogosphere isn’t the only place where there’s criticism of the good, but misguided, intentions of this strange collaboration. New York Magazine’s Intel blog drew parallels between the masseuses in The Oasis and HuffPo writers (ie, they’re all unpaid), and called OTM a “yoga-evangelizing nonprofit.”
Salon.com noted that the HuffPo donated $40,ooo to a “yoga group” (that would be OTM) but didn’t pay the masseuses who were rubbing Republican feet. And they also labeled OTM “evangelical.” “These people — the meditation teachers, “estheticians,” masseuses and yoga teachers — happily volunteered their labor because they were essentially conned into believing they were performing a public service — spreading mindfulness and getting buzz for yoga! — instead of working for free.”
But it was a Salon.com commentor who nailed it on the head: “They [the volunteers] perceive the delegates/workers at the convention as being in need, and are there to serve and spread their message.” Just like any good evangelical church organization running a soup kitchen or basement thrift store.
In this HuffPo video, Arianna Huffington and Seane Corn discussed the mission behind the Oasis. “This is not about politics,” Huffington said. Funny – given it’s a political convention, I thought it was about politics! Huffington went on to say something about we can find common ground if we learn how to work with our stress, and how wonderful it was that the Oasis could provide a place where people cold unplug and recharge.
Which is confusing, because I thought it was about social change. Anyway, according to this journalist from the highly regarded Bay News 9, while there wasn’t much unplugging in the Oasis, there was plenty of recharging devices.
Everywhere I looked, I saw journalists perched on soft white couches, typing away on laptops and sipping fresh juice from highball glasses. The room was candlelit with fresh flowers and stacks of books of the self-help persuasion on every surface. I saw a disembodied pair of slacks and shirt sleeves sticking out from something called the EnergyPod. Servers brought plates of gluten-free chicken and vegan corn chowder to ravenous reporters.
Which begs the question: who’s serving who here? These conventions are basically media circus shows, where platforms are unveiled and decisions are already made. Is there really much potential for change to happen in that space, no matter how many meaningful conversations happen over facials and acroyoga? I have to wonder if this about “serving” politicians and media, or about extending the OTM brand and developing media partnerships.
The Huffington Oasis will be setting up shop at the Democratic National Convention, so stay tuned for more “political yoga” adventures!