off the mat & into the republican national convention: the whole yoga service/politics thing gets confused

Sep 1, 2012 by

Seane Corn leads a yoga class in the Huffington Oasis at the RNC.

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.”

Awkward Bakasana: the first step towards balance, equality and “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!

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9 Comments

  1. Roseanne, thank you for writing about this! I completely agree – although, as an American who’s deeply worried about the direction that the GOP is trying to take the USA, feel even more vehemently that OTM is making a big mistake here. Although I’m sure it’s not intentional, to me the message being sent is “don’t worry about these nasty politics and policies, if we can all just relax with some herbal tea, yoga, and massage, everyone will come together and it will all be OK!”

    It seems clear that OTM does not want to explicitly come out as supporting Obama – hence, the “Yoga Votes” campaign that stresses participation but not political education, and “Oases” at both parties’ conventions. Personally, I would really prefer that they just stay out of politics altogether if they are not interested in educating people about what’s happening and don’t want to take a political stand. Then, if they are really only interested in service, why not skip the conventions themselves and set up shop in the cities where they’re being help serving people who really are underserved? This might draw attention to where it’s really needed – the social problems in America that neither party is addressing (but that the Republicans threaten to make much worse much more quickly than the Democrats).

    I’m not enthused about Obama or the Democrats either, but given the choices we’re faced with, I’ll take them hands down over the GOP, which has been taken over by the hard right and poses much more of an immediate danger to the future of the country. I don’t know what it will take for Americans to wake up, but by the time we do, I fear it will be too late to pull the US out of the nosedive toward extreme and entrenched economic inequality and social division that we’re well into already.

    The Democrats may just be a finger in the dike, but at least that buys some time. The Republicans want to rip down the last vestiges of the New Deal order and turn the country completely over to the wealthy and powerful, with no pesky unions, labor laws, public sector, rights to free speech and assembly, environmental regulation or anything else to get in their way. It’s a frightening situation and lighting some scented candles and doing some down dogs together is not going to make it go away.

  2. Guess I’ll post the blog I started on this but till then….

    The passivity that started Obama’s administration has ended it here, I hope.

    Ms. Huffington has embarrassed herself by the naive and sophmoric offering of a new age retreat for people who not only don’t share her views but are opposed to them. I saw a photo of her massaging some guy’s naked back and the words Stockholm Syndrome went through my head.

    Is this finally what we’ve reduced yoga to? If the pool got any shallower some diver’s banged up head would probably start a chain of reflection. Is that what it takes?

    Although she and her colleagues probably meant well is there really an excuse for ignorance when you’re packaging yoga/spa swag bags?

  3. some of these comments point to exactly what the OTM effort is about. we are completely polarized. even as progressives we are quick to shoot each other down without checking in, speaking on behalf of others and going to extremes to express our views in ways that are neither respectful nor compassionate.

    i won’t speak for anyone other than myself, but as i expressed to Alex Pareene at Salon.com, i was not “conned” into doing anything and to suggest i was insults my intelligence and capacity for decision-making on my own behalf. i’d like to believe people don’t think that as a very strong, very informed, politicized woman, priest, meditation and yogi teacher-practitioner of color, i (and my team of 3 other folks of color) were naive in our thinking about what the pitfalls and potentials are of this effort. having actually been to the RNC and now at the DNC, we don’t regret it at all.

    the “evangelical” label is a petty swipe that has no merit here. it’s mean-spirited and exactly what isn’t needed any longer. no one is going out an knocking on doors peddling yoga or meditation or smoothies. this won’t “make it OK” and no one suggests it will. nothing is making it OK, at this point. but exposure does, indeed, create potential opening. it’s not a quick fix. or even a fix, necessarily. but it’s an opening where we have nothing but closing. how many of us practitioners were once closed to all manner of things that our mindfulness and yoga practices have opened us up to? is it the ideal platform? perhaps not, but not one yogi/meditator is selling their soul or their values. these are solid people entering with open hearts & curious minds to at least look.

    i know the stakes are high. higher really than they have ever been. i truly believe that we are in a desperate battle for the future of this country and i’m clear that one vision that is being presented would be a very, very intolerable future for me personally. but i have to trust that my practice and it’s values has something to offer that may transcend even my own understanding.

    let’s have a dialogue, good people. with our fierce convictions and in respectful opposition, let’s find a better way than we have been because pendulum-swinging back and forth isn’t working for anyone but those that thrive off of our loss of hope that we’ll get anywhere at all.

    angel Kyodo williams
    http://mindfulvotes.org
    http://transformativechange.org

    pps, if anyone can get us convention credentials, we’d be more than happy to go and bear witness on the convention floor.

  4. This reminds me of The Simpsons, when the sign on madman Hank Scorpio’s HQ says “Work Out for Better Tyranny.” It’s a fine line between helping Karl Rove’s feel good as he feverishly works on his “permanent Republican majority” and spreading respect for body and mind, and in the macrocosm, earth and truth, to everyone.

    I guess I’d find the balance in teaching asanas to him, but when he wants massage of his sore back (he’s grossly obese), I’d tell him calmly, “Do your own yoga, you hyperselfish parasite. And find another planet to liquidate. What if CNN founder Ted Turner is right when he says, ‘We’ll be eight degrees hotter in 30 or 40 years and basically none of the crops will grow. Most of the people will have died and the rest of us will be cannibals’ ?” Then it may be your children, Karl, your victims, who eat you, Karl! That would be poetic justice, but yoga here is more about preventive medicine, so turn your life around 180 degrees before you destroy everything you love. Om Shanti!!”

    I think I’ll write Huffington a post about this. When I’ve seen her on TV she’s brought a pretty good balance to things and seems open minded. She did great on a fine panel with Smiley and West. I’ve been a student of Richard Freeman here in Boulder since we were roomates in 1980 and 1985, so I remember pre-commercial yoga.

  5. maura manzo

    How about getting some feedback from the politicans who went to the Oasis? maybe it’s already out there….would love to see it. Can anyone post anything?

  6. I agree with BK, AND I think that there are good arguments for the work OTM, Sharon Salzberg and others were doing at the Oasis. I’ve written more about it here: http://marianne-elliott.com/2012/09/off-the-mat-into-the-thick-of-it-yoga-at-the-rnc-dnc/

    In short – I’ve worked in Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip and other places where factional politics are often violent and where distrust and hatred run very deep. And I’ve seen how small acts of kindness – especially when performed with an of awareness of the greater social, political and power structures in which they are landing – can have greater effects than we might credit.

    I’ve also seen the powerful effect of even the simplest mindfulness practices. I’ve seen soldiers and police officers in Afghanistan feel the effect of simple pranayama practice on their strung-out, often traumatized, nervous systems. And I’ve seen the change that can make to how they do their work.

    Does this replace the need to engage in advocacy, activism and change-work to alter the bigger picture? No, not at all. But sustained change of deeply entrenched patterns requires the activation of many different change levers on many different levels.

    Off the Mat, YogaVotes and the MindfulVotes movements are testing the boundaries of the role of mindfulness and yoga practices in our political process. There are important questions to ask about the strategies, and important discussions to have about their effectiveness – but as a yoga community my hope would be that we can have those discussions with mutual respect, humility, and kindness.

  7. nathan

    Marianne, I’ve gotten some heat for my companion post to this one, which is of a similar flavor. I agree with your comments about the impact of simple mindfulness practices. And what you’ve witnessed with soldiers and others, I’ve witnessed in folks living is struggling urban communities where conflict is commonplace. I would also guess that your experiences are similar to mine in that it wasn’t just a one time affair, that those soldiers needed some consistent support and guidance over a period of time in order to experience some beneficial effects from practice.

    My main criticisms were based on the fact that political conventions are really just shows these days. So little of substance actually happens at them, and anything that could be of substance – i.e. actual debate, discussion, and changing of minds – is squashed in order to present a unified front. Beyond that, though, the bigger issue in my mind is that it’s a five day event, designed to be a performance for the world wide media, and so everything attached to it has that kind of flavor, at least to some extent. I think it’s important for people in the yoga and meditation communities to really critically reconsider the idea that a few emotional releases during a single class or few classes equals a profoundly transformative change. Over the years, I’ve seen so many of these one shot service projects appear and disappear, with people walking away patting themselves on the back because participants got a taste of practice. Meanwhile, the organizations involved usually got positive publicity, press attention and frequently financial contributions as a result of these one shot events. It’s entirely too fleeting, kind of shallow, and too often reinforces the privilege/underprivileged dynamic – even if a few participants actually experience something that changes the course of their lives.

    My personal experience of service work, as well as that of many friends and relatives, is something done with little fanfare. Sometimes it’s a one shot deal, but just as often it’s sustained over months and years, where relationships are developed and connections to whatever social issues are present are heightened. As I wrote on two other posts, if OTM did something like a simple yoga and meditation program during the next Congressional session, offered to anyone on Capital Hill – that would be visionary. Helping folks regardless of political affiliation develop a sustained practice, or to just have a place to let go of their stresses and worries, when they are actually dealing with major, stressful decisions would be a lot easier for me to get behind. And I’d guess others who are critics of this particular action to get behind.

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