Who is afraid to get political?

Via Chelsea Roff
on Oct 14, 2011
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Unless you’ve had your head buried in the sand the last few weeks, you’ve heard about #Occupywallstreet. Last I checked, there are currently Occupy events in over 1400 cities across the globe, and in approximately 400 cities in 48 states across America.

The movement has not gone unnoticed by the yoga community either — Michael Franti, Seane Corn, Russell Simmons, Elena Brower, and even Deepak Chopra have all taken time to offer their support to the protestors. My social media feeds have been absolutely swarmed with pictures, comments, and videos from the burgeoning protest movement. There’s no getting away from it. Something’s brewing.

Credit: J.T. Liss Photography

As the hype builds, many are voicing deep concerns about how and whether the yoga community should be involved. Does our practice compel us to go out and support men and women calling for satya (truth) and ahimsa (non-violence) in our world, or is it too divisive for yogis to get involved? When Yoga Modern Contributing Editor Carol Horton asked our readers last week what they thought about the intermingling of yoga and politics, commenter Dave shared a sentiment I’m hearing a lot of lately:

I think it is very dangerous for yogis to publicly align with one political view over another… yoga should be equally available to all and not selectively offered to a few… it is a slippery slope for a yogi to “pick sides”.

My parents took me to my first protest when I was five years old. It was a gay rights march in Austin, Texas, and I remember my mother saving the little sign she’d hung around my neck (like a noose, I sometimes muse) as a proud memento for years after. It read, “It’s my parents who are gay. Please don’t hate me.” As the daughter of two lesbians, I feel like I was forced into politics from the moment of conception.

For years, I resented my mother for putting me in such a position. What if I didn’t want to be a gay rights advocate? What if I wanted to walk the safe route, not take sides in the debate, stay out of the line of fire? I didn’t want to be political, but I wasn’t really given a choice. In some ways, I think that’s the position yogis find themselves in now. We are being political, even when we don’t want to be.

Creative Commons License photo credit: J. Tegnerud

As participants in modern day society, each and every one of us are cogs in a larger sociopolitical machine. We pay our taxes, earn an income, depend on people and corporations alike to meet our basic needs. We vote with with our dollars. No matter how spiritual you claim to be, if you’re reading this you’re not one of the cave-dwelling yogis of ancient days. We are IN the world. The question isn’t whether we “get political,” but rather how we choose to do so. Let me ask you something:

How would you react if you saw the owner of your yoga studio charging darker-skinned people higher drop-in rates than lighter-skinned people?

How about if you learned the studio was dumping toxic waste into its “filtered” drinking water? Would you think, “Oh, well, not my place. I’m a yogi, I don’t want to be divisive.” Give me a break. I don’t know too many yogis that would sit idly by in unbiased awareness. So why is it somehow “unyogic” for yoga teachers to speak up when the same type of injustice happens outside our safe little studios?

Credit: J.T. Liss Photography 

My mother used to tell me a funny bedtime story when I was young; not funny “ha-ha,” but funny for just how unconventional I realize it was looking back on it now:

“First they came for the black people,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t black.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the gay people,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t gay.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

After a little Googling, I discovered this “bedtime story” was my mother’s adaptation of a famous saying about the inactivity of German intellectuals during the Nazis’ purging of their chosen targets. The anecdote, I think, taught me at a young age the importance of standing with and for the disempowered. And more importantly, its context reminded me that choosing not to act is just as political and consequential as the alternative.

I am not suggesting that the present circumstances in any way compare to those of the Holocaust. But I do think we’re bearing witness to a revolutionary moment in our world, and we’re getting political whether we choose to engage with #OccupyWallStreet directly or not. Yes, revolutionary is a strong word. But I use it because the word revolution implies a complete turn-around, a pivotal moment that harkens monumental change. #Occupywallstreet follows closely on the heels of the Arab Spring, and if you ask me these movements are only the tip of the iceberg.

The economic downturn that sparked #OccupyWallStreet is the symptom of a much larger crisis we’re all going to be forced to confront in coming years. The bubble is only just beginning to deflate. Our monetary system is completely disconnected from our earthly resources (which we’re rapidly depleting). Skyrocketing prices (hello, peak oil!), food famines (and overpopulation!), and natural disasters (and climate change!) will disproportionately affect less affluent populations first. It’s no wonder people are protesting around the world.

Credit: © Asmaa Waguih / Reuters

Last night, as I was putting finishing touches on this article, I queried my friends on Facebook what they thought it means to “get political.” One person answered, “politics is how we treat each other collectively… to be politically responsible means to seek a balance of power that recognizes the agency of all concerned.”  That is a definition of political responsibility I think the yoga world could afford to embrace. Conscious political action does not mean we become divisive. To get consciously political is to recognize our interdependence with one another, and to act (or not act) accordingly in every aspect of our lives.

Perhaps getting political means calling for the corporate executives to be held accountable for their actions, while recognizing that we too bear responsibility — for buying into their materialistic pipe dream to begin with. Maybe for yogis getting political means offering a meditation or asana practice to the Occupiers, as a means to embody the sentiments they’re calling for in the world. Heck, I’d love to see a few yoga teachers volunteer to offer yoga at the stock exchange. The Wallstreeters could probably benefit from the practice even more than the protestors!


Teaching yoga at the JFK Memorial with OccupyDallas

Photos Credit: David Sunshine

So, can yogis get political without being divisive? I think so. Nearly twenty years after my first protest, I’ve realized that my mother (unintentionally) taught me to live my yoga from the get go. I’m not afraid to get political. My practice is recognize that my entire life is political and to consciously act to create a better world for us all.

So, what does “getting political” mean to you? Do you think engaging in political action is inherently divisive?

via Yoga Modern 

The #OccupyWallStreet protests have been a hot topic in the blogosphere this week. For more of YM’s coverage on the protests, check out here, here, or here (video).


About Chelsea Roff

Chelsea Roff is a nationally-recognized author and speaker, and the Founder of Yoga for Eating Disorders. In September 2013, Chelsea raised $50,000 on the crowdfunding platform IndieGoGo to kickstart her non-profit, Yoga for Eating Disorders. The program is currently being offered in treatment centers and yoga studios around the country at no charge, and she is working with researchers at UC San Diego to evaluate the program’s effectiveness in treatment. Chelsea is known for her intelligent, inspiring, and tell-it-like-it-is speaking style, and for weaving together profound personal experiences with her scientific background to deliver deeply moving insights. After nearly losing her life to anorexia and a subsequent stroke when she was 15, she has became a national advocate for community-based mental health interventions. Her work was recently showcased by Sanjay Gupta on CNN, and she’s been keynote speaker at 92nd Street Y, The Omega Institute, and at various universities and conferences around the country. Chelsea currently lives in Venice, California, where she can be found cartwheeling across the beach, hiking in the mountains, and practicing yoga poses on her little pink scooter.


29 Responses to “Who is afraid to get political?”

  1. Scott_Newsom says:

    I love this article. I think its something many of us struggle with. I am a liberal naturalist, but my three main yoga teachers are conservative christian republicans. If those teachers had brought their politics into the studio with them, I would never have been able to learn what has become the most important activity in my life. I also found that I was being very unpeaceful in my politics outside of the studio and that eventually caused so much inner turmoil, that I had to step back from politics for a while. I was simply not being the person I was trying to become while I engaged in the daily hatefest that is politics (and has always been politics). What that allowed me to realize that it is really important not to bring politics into Yoga. However, its also allowed me to realize that it is very important to bring Yoga into politics. Nonviolence, truthfulness, moderation, nonstealing, nongreediness are all values that our politicians should exemplify in their behavior and support in their policies. To the extext that we support those values when we get political, there should be no conflict between our policics and our yoga. And, oh wouldn't politics be a better thing if these values became the norm?

  2. Zac in VA says:

    At some point, we do need to bring politics into our spiritual spaces.
    Don't forget that there are many Christians and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews in the anti-war movement – and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was a springboard for the black civil rights movement!

  3. Zac in VA says:

    @YfC: I suppose you'd have to consider how important it is to keep everyone happy, and how that relates to harmony and interconnection.

  4. Ultimately, to me, being political is part of being human. If you don't think your life is political, you're probably not looking closely enough at how your actions and inactions effect others and vice-versa. The key, I think, is to try to be mindful in our political behavior–which might mean both taking political action in as kind and compassionate a manner as possible, as well as knowing when to leave the partisan politics aside, rather than asking yoga students who might be Republicans to chant "yes we can."

  5. Mark says:

    Being a yogi does not rob you of your voice, we all have a responsibility to stand up for what we believe. This movement is important and I can't see any way it conflicts with yogic principles so why all the controversy? We all have to use the gifts we've been given or respect we have earned to stand up for our principles and make our voices heard…some have bigger voices than others but we all have a right to be heard.

  6. I have no idea what's happened to my spelling this evening…

  7. an-opinion says:

    For me the problem is not at all yogis getting political, Deepak Chopra’s talk was really really inspiring and wise from a breadth of experience and wisdom whereas people like Sean Corn who have made a name for themselves in the yoga community to me don’t ring of any real depth…it’s yoga cheerleader. I’m sorry to say it but it was my experience. Listening to her I felt embarrassed for her. I know she believes what she speaks but a lot of it feels like it’s what she’s programed herself to speak over so many years as a “teacher” and it’s grating on the ears of anyone that has spent time in the presence of those that actually have learned it from experience. That is the risk, not to get involved as yogis or not, but who’s voice do we want the world to hear speaking for us as yogis, Russel Simmons was great as was Deepak however I can do without the lingo rah rah of the yoga teachers that became teachers by teaching not by really learning through experience. Long hard work. Yoga teachers unfortunately often fall into the trap of identifying themselves as “teachers”early on that they can’t ever access the deeper Truth that can be experienced only by letting go of all identification. A clear ego is one that is that, clear… not created. Hers is created. It’s wonderful all the work she has done off the mat however that too doesn’t make one a spokesperson. Most of the teachers that I find are clear not manufactured spiritually are the ones that never aimed to be a teacher but BECAME one as a natural byproduct of their own true evolution (Echart Tolle and Byron Katie come to mind). We must speak but it’s a risk who it is that speaks and how it is then that the yoga community is portrayed based on the personalities of the speaker not on what we as yogis are and what yoga actually is.

    Which is definitely not about cheerleading.

  8. Valerie says:

    We only have to look to Mahatma Gandhi to know the power of the yogic presence in politics. Another great political yogi was Martin Luther King, Jr. although we’d never overtly consider him one. Yet serving a cause doesn’t always mean being on the front lines. That’s not every yogi’s style. No yoga student or teacher should feel inadequate for not desiring to make a political noise. Every meditation,every sun salutation, every prayer, every Om can be directed towards the desired goal of economic justice and peace. Paradoxically, the more that yogi’s focus on the ultimate goal of inner liberation, the more power they will have to achieveexternal goals in the world.

  9. Ben_Ralston says:

    I'm with you Chelsea. I hate (yes, I feel quite strongly about it) this very western approach to yoga as if it's some kind of exclusive club, and once you join, you're suddenly different from all the non-yogis.
    The quote (from Dave) at the start of this article exemplifies this attitude.
    Yoga is a *personal* practice. The idea that once you're a yogi (whatever that means) you suddenly become apolitical is utterly absurd. As far as I'm concerned you become more political. You become more aware, more awake, more powerful. To me that's what this revolution is all about (and I agree completely – it is a revolution, and it will grow). It's about humanity waking up from the illusion of fear, and embracing it's own power through love for themselves and each other. If Yogis don't support that then I don't know who will…

  10. Ben_Ralston says:

    Posted to EJ fb page, with love

  11. Chelsea says:

    Or is it the other way around? Bring our spiritual spaces into politics? Sometimes I think our spiritual traditions have integrated far too much of politics already. I grew up in the Presbyterian Church, and I think we definitely had an abundance of meaningless politics integrated in the tradition. There's that distinction between politics and conscious politics again!

  12. Chelsea says:

    Amen to that, Mark. In my opinion, we are humans before yogis. So if something challenges our ethical/moral principles, it's our responsibility to speak up.

  13. Chelsea says:

    Gratzi, my friend!

  14. Chelsea says:

    Ah. Thank you for the so very thoughtful comment, Scott. That distinction between "bringing politics into yoga" and "bringing yoga into politics" is so important! I responded to a comment below along these very lines.

    I'm curious… I'm unfamiliar with the term liberal naturalist. I could Google, but what does that mean to you?

  15. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    I love your work.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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  16. […] more “left” people about whether change from within is actually possible — when a system is so broke that it has to be trashed in order to be fixed. I don’t watch a lot of television, but when I do, […]

  17. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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  18. […] Who is afraid to get political? […]

  19. Chelsea says:

    Well said, Laura. Thank you.

  20. […] though we don’t like their politics, we contribute to the mess. When we don’t want to “get political” because it feels unfamiliar or uncomfortable, we contribute to the mess. When we throw away our […]

  21. Steve says:

    Why wouldn't a yogi stand up for what they thought was right?

  22. Brian says:

    Did Seane Corne make an effort to show up at a Tea Party rally to help those folks use yoga to "find their voice" "speak their truth" "speak up for injustices?" Thought not. I guess Seane only cares about people's voices if they are politically aligned with her. As a conservative, small-government, libertarian it is unfortunate that people like Seane often make yoga seem unwelcoming to folks that don't share a liberal point of view.

  23. Chelsea says:

    Good question, Steve. Good question.

  24. jen says:

    Intelligent conversation- props, Kristin.

  25. Meredith says:

    Occupy has no goals other than being a nuisance. Shoo, fly.

  26. […] the very least we owe it to ourselves at this point in history, with the presence and voice of the Occupy Movement and eruption of the Arab Spring, to genuinely think about the issues raised by Timm amidst the […]