October 14, 2011

Who is afraid to get political?

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.

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).

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