seane corn & off the mat respond to criticism of the oasis (finally!)

Arianna Huffington toasts yoga & politics while Seane Corn watches, at the Democratic National Convention (photo by Jamie Ferguson, via Facebook)

At the beginning of September, yoga service organization Off The Mat, Into The World and their campaign YogaVotes got the yoga blogosphere worked into a tizzy with The Oasis, a Huffington Post sponsored “yoga spa” at the Republican and Democratic national conventions. IAYB was one of the outspoken voices that criticized the event, calling it “more embarrassing than Clint Eastwood’s rambling and incoherent speech” at the RNC and “so earnest, naïve and misguided it makes my heart ache.”

Finally, OTM has spoken to the criticism, via a lengthy interview with Chelsea Roff at (conducted by email and in accordance with OTM’s consensus-based way of making public statements). OTM’s co-founder Seane Corn and executive director Kerri Kelly stepped up and contributed to the dialogue. And shortly after the post appeared on Intent, Julian Walker responded with a killer post on YogaBrains.

The Response

Corn started off by clarifying OTM’s intention: “It was our hope that having access to these practices could make a difference in an environment that is hyper-charged, separatist and often fiercely motivated by rhetoric that is divisive. Being at the Oasis was an exploration on many levels. It was never meant to push a political agenda. It was to offer tools for healing and to watch, listen and learn.”

Kelly responded to criticism of  YogaVotes’ non-partisan stance by saying, “This isn’t about influencing the direction of the campaign, but rather how we vote. This does not mean the entire yoga community should be non-partisan. In fact, we want yogis get clear, informed and passionate about what they stand for.”

She also made an interesting, although rather contradictory, statement about the level of engagement, within OTM’s efforts and the yoga community. “Talk-based engagement is not our style. This is about action, not words. We want to engage with politics in a very different way. From our perspective, that IS meaningful engagement.” But then she goes on to say, “Voter education and dialogue is a big part of YogaVotes, and yet our community is not engaging as much in that discussion. I hope that the strong feelings about what we did and did not do at the Oasis will encourage people to get more engaged and to look at how they would get involved in their own way.”

There is something to be said for increased engagement. According to the latest press release from YogaVotes, a recent survey showed that “80% of yogis fail to vote in most elections.” A 20% voter turnout from the yogi-identified demographic is far below the national turnout of 56.8% in the 2008 presidential election. Whether or not you agree with the electoral process (or surveys, for that matter), these numbers indicate an alarming lack of engagement from the community of self-identified yoga practitioners.

In closing, Corn had this to say about the whole conversation: “We were surprised that the dialogue that this inspired was more about us than about the election or issues or the state of politics. It feels limiting and more like the behavior that we’re seeing in politics right now: divisive, separate, personal.”

Fair enough. However, if OTM is going to be the voice of engaged “yoga politics,” and their idea of “meaningful engagement” includes massages, asana classes and essential oils, then they should be ready for a little pushback. It’s also apparent that without the criticism, there may have been no word from them other than the self-congratulatory articles and videos on Huffington Post.

Overall, I appreciate OTM’s willingness to state that this was a learning experience and experiment. I’m curious to know if they felt like it was worth it – if they were able to connect with the people they wanted to, how they were received by media and delegates from both parties.

They definitely admit that they’re still figuring out how “yoga and mindfulness can influence the political environment,” which is refreshing to hear. This is a process and none of us really know what it’s going to look like. We’re not even sure if the yoga community is ready to enter the realm of politics, or if it’s possible to have any effectiveness at all. And perhaps, it might just be best for OTM to stick with what they’re good at: mobilizing yoga practitioners into service.

The Retort

While Corn and Kelly conveyed OTM’s good intentions and openness to exploration, their commentary lapsed into vague yoga-isms in more than a few places. Over at YogaBrains, Julian Walker jumped on this as “an interesting issue to explore regarding spiritual philosophy and political engagement.”

In particular, he zoned in on the following comment from Seane Corn: “Yoga teaches me that we are all connected and that issues like war, poverty, illiteracy, and violence exist because we act as if there is an “other;” an “us” and “them.” This is the opposite of yoga and is a collective misperception. If I want to be a change agent and participate in creating real healing and peace in the world, then I have to recognize the places in myself that perpetuate this limited belief of separation as well. I have to recognize (and heal) that the very thing I judge in others is something I too embody.”

He goes into a sharp analysis of the underlying metaphysical assumptions about oneness, the challenge of trying to “overcome separation” with love and higher consciousness, and, finally, calls for a more “this-wordly approach to politics.” Yes yes!

“Many of us are drawn to spirituality because we want peace; we have low tolerance for conflict,” Walker writes. “Sometimes this is because of trauma, or because we are just sensitive people. For spirituality to be sustainable it must enable us to tolerate conflict with more resilience—to stand our ground, speak our truth, feel the feelings and keep honestly learning about reality. I know that the folks at OTM are on the same page with their extraordinary activism and service work. We might do better not to oversimplify real world political issues with well-meaning platitudes.”

It’s murky stuff, this integration of spirituality and politics. I think Walker has done an amazing job of responding in a respectful, informed way and opening the dialogue even further. After reading OTM’s response, I feel a little softer towards their efforts, although still skeptical about the place yoga plays in politics. I’m also not sure if I related to the serene, polished, body-based practice that I saw in photos of both Huffington Oases. I think, at the end of the day, I’m more interested in a politicized yoga (i.e, a practice that’s engaged, supportive and based on conversation and community) than I am in pushing yoga into any kind of political arena.

  1. in turnaround, i think it should be made compulsory that all politicians practice yoga.

  2. Definitely inversions!

    • Don’t forget Kapotasana!!! Now THAT would be funny. I think you’d need two assistants per politician.