Yoga & Activism: Are You Ready to Occupy the World from Within?

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on Nov 22, 2011
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“A mysticism that is only private and self-absorbed leaves the evils of the world intact and does little to halt the suicidal juggernaut of history; an activism that is not purified by profound spiritual and psychological self-awareness and rooted in divine truth, wisdom, and compassion will only perpetuate the problem it is trying to solve, whatever it’s righteous intentions.” –Andrew Harvey

Enlightenment, in other words, is not an escape from the world but a true return to the world.

In the words of sages and pundits from various wisdom traditions and backgrounds, we see a common, golden thread: enlightenment is being in this world but not of it. Enlightenment is having your head and heart in the wide open sky of spirit and your feet firmly planted in the garden of life.

In other words, Enlightenment means transformation, transforming us and the world at the same time. Enlightenment means to be an integral person working towards creating an integral world. Enlightenment means being a spiritual activist.

So what do the great wisdom traditions say that urges us to be active in this world? From Buddhist and Hindu Tantra, we learn:

“Brahma (Cosmic Consciousness) is the world.”

“Nirvana and Samsara are not two.”

“Shiva (Cosmic Consciousness) and Shakti (Cosmic Energy) are one.”

“Brahma is the composite of Shiva and Shakti.”

In other words, the nondual philosophies of Tantric Yoga, for example, teaches us about inner and outer ecology; that the world of spirit (Shiva) and the world of matter (Shakti) are essentially an integrated whole; are One in Brahma.

In the words of Ken Wilber: “The point, we might say, is that the circle of Ascending and Descending energies must always be unbroken: “this world” and the “other world” united in one ongoing, everlasting, exuberant embrace.”

In the words of my tantric guru, Anandamurti: “Yoga means unification…We must have yoga in all the three levels of life. If there is yoga only in the spiritual level and there is no yoga in the psychic and physical level, what will happen? The very existence of human beings will become unbalanced, human equipoise will be lost. So we must have yoga, or rather yoga-oriented movement, in each and every sphere of life.”

But not all yoga philosophies have urged the same balance; not all yogis have lived firmly rooted in this world. In Vedanta we are taught that this world is an illusion. Consequently some yogis have fled this world to seek salvation in spirit only.

There are always exceptions. Even though Vivekananda was a follower of Vedanta and did not think posture yoga (asanas) was very important, he was a political activist in his native India.

Still, I favor those who clearly favor balance in their world view. “Yoga in each and every sphere of life.” That is, when we buy yogurt a yogi is to consider not only how deliciously it melts on the tongue and how good it is for health but also how good it is for the planet’s health—how and where it was grown by farmers, animals and dirt. That is yogic ecology.

Yoga is then to ask ourselves: Is this yogurt both organic and local? If not, is it better to buy this local yogurt even though it is not organic, like that popular brand over there, which is produced 2000 miles away?  These are questions on the yogi/activist’s mind; these are questions every earth-yogi must make and answer. And, yes, these are questions without clear cut and easy answers.

Because, if all is one, the way my food is made and where it comes from, it matters. Because, if all is one, the less suffering I cause animals and the environment, it matters.

If all is one, as yoga says, it all matters. Not just my personal body and soul, but also the body and soul of others, the body and soul of animals, of plants. The body and soul of those people living over there.

But let’s not climb too high up on the ecological or activist pedestal. I have Appalachian Hillbilly neighbors who eat bears and have never heard the word asanas. They grow most of their own food and generally live lives much greener than I do, even though I try to shop local and organic and grow some veggies and live in a so-called green community.

To be a yogi activist, then, is to look the world straight in its face and answer all the uneasy questions in life and come up with workable, conscious compromises. Because, here on this dusty earth, perfection, like the sexy perfection in that sleek, sensual body of the Lululemon yogi, that kind of perfection is not the perfection the yogi activist will always find or even want.

Yogi perfection is, first of all, a state of mind, a state of heart, a state of consciousness; then that state of mind urges us into imperfect action. Imperfect action in the world of Shakti, the world of Samsara.

Still, we act by thinking, by feeling, that this world is also Brahma, also consciousness, also sacred. In Tantra that is acting from the state of madhuvidya, from the heart of honey knowledge. We act as if the world is a sweet and sacred place to live. Always.

If all is potentially sweet, if all is potentially one, how our economy runs, how our resources are shared, it matters. It can be part of our yoga, our enlightenment enterprise to Occupy Wall Street. We can do yoga by occupying space on the sidewalk to protest the firing of workers. It can be yoga to say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH to the CEO and the board of directors, who, like heroin addicts, stole the wages of these workers to increase their quarterly profit fix. Not to demonstrate because it is hip, but simply because it matters.

It can be yoga to say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH without hating those you say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH to.

In some of my retreats, I teach a meditation and visualization exercise developed by spiritual activist Andrew Harvey in which the aim is to break our hearts open to the world, to passionately find that heartbroken space within which resonates with that which is broken outside us.

Because that which is broken can heal, and that act of healing is yoga, that act of healing is spiritual activism. That act is part of the idea that Samsara and Nirvana are One, the idea that Shiva and Shakti are one in Brahma. The idea that what is Above is also Below.

That is Tantra, that is yoga. That is what the yogic transformation enterprise is all about: to blend that which is within us with that which is outside us. That is the sacred and often complex and neglected enterprise of yoga.

Yoga can mend ligaments, backs, hearts—and yoga can, in small and big ways, mend the world.

My guru, Anandamurti, had a saying: yoga is self-realization and service to the world. Living according to that saying landed him in jail, and he became the Nelson Mandela of yoga.

Because, if yoga is all about navel watching and retreating from this world, then what kind of yoga is it? The yoga of a selfish, lonely, separated soul in the body of a sexy Lululemon ad? The yoga of a body-denying ascetic whose nails are too long to feed himself?

It is no accident that religious enterprises which are about going-to-heaven-only and yogic enterprises which are for-myself-only have a one-dimensional resemblance to economists who define human behavior and aspirations in purely economic terms.

The economic human sees greed as good; that selfish aspirations are solely what an economy is built upon. And that fictionalized version of reality has created a fictionalized, phantom economy based on greed and speculation.

Likewise, the ego-driven yogi mistakes the beautiful body in the mirror for the beautiful self within.

And the ascetic thinks that by denying the body it will eventually evaporate into the transparent purity of soul.

Body-obsession and profit-obsession and ascetic-escaping-the-world-obsession thus share similar traits: they have great difficulty embracing reality in its wholeness, in its imperfect, complex yet sacred earthiness.

If yoga is holistic, which I believe it is, then part of its holism lies in its ability to embrace opposites and see the oneness in diversity and complexity. Yoga thus is not only about occupying the mat, the cushion and Wall Street, but about occupying the whole of reality, the whole of life in all its divine, imperfect and vast sacredness—in each and every moment of our lives.

That, and nothing less, is the yoga of imperfect perfection, the yoga of enlightenment with both a small and capital E. That is the yoga of sacred activism.




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About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes has traveled the world as a meditation teacher, Ayurvedic practitioner, author, and is currently the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center teaching yoga, meditation, and juice rejuvenation. He studied yoga therapy in Nepal and India, Ayurvedic Medicine at California College of Ayurveda, and naturopathic detox therapy at the AM Wellness Center in Cebu, Philippines. He is the author of four books, and he lives with his wife Radhika and Juno, a sweet, gentle Great Pyrenees, in the mountains near Asheville, North Carlina. Connect with him via his website: and


16 Responses to “Yoga & Activism: Are You Ready to Occupy the World from Within?”

  1. Thaddeus1 says:

    Thank you Ramesh. I always enjoy your insights. Radhanath swami recently published an article on Huffington Post ( which echoes many of your sentiments. Therein, he writes, "The root of cause of pollution in the world is pollution in the heart . . . If you successfully clean the air, the sky, every river and every ocean, it is for certain that people will pollute them again unless they reform the ecology of their hearts." So, in this manner, a fully embraced yogic approach to the world finds one quite comfortable amongst those labeled activists.

    • Ramesh says:

      Dear Thaddeus, thank you for your comments and for the link to Radhanath Swami's article whose sentiment I agree with. In other words, we need both a sustainable economy as well as sustainable spirituality.

  2. Posted to Elephant Main Facebook Page, my Facebook page, Twitter, StumbleUpon.

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  3. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    As usual – powerful and insightful! Thank you so much, Ramesh!

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage. Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook.

  4. Ramesh says:

    You nailed it, Carol! Freedom is a state of mind, indeed. Thus the engaged yogi has an added challenge in healing not only his or her body-mind but also the body-mind of the world. Big task indeed! So freedom, enligthenment,, perfection, whatever name we choose, is an inner state of equilibrium that is detached from the results of our engaged actions in the world. That is the essence is the heart of Krishna's teachings to Arjuna, the heart of karma yoga, the heart of tantra. The all-so-common activist burnout is of course caused, as you say, by identifying too much with the results of our activism through overwork, overachievement and the resulting pangs of frustration. Yoga is thus an excellent tool for activists, and we see the state of detachment displayed in the greatest of activists, such as in Nelson Mandela–the ability to forgive, be present under extreme duress and move on. We saw it in Gandhi, and we see it in Arundhati Roy who is perhaps the most softspoken revolutionary with a smile the world has ever seen. Freedom is a state of mind. So, as my guru said, the path of tantra, of yoga, is subjective approach through objective adjustment. That sutra sums up the whole philosophy of balanced yet dynamic, world-engaged yoga to me: meditate while being engaged, surrender… and then surrender some more, and over and over again…
    For over 20 years I dreamed of the ideal life in a green community with a teaching center at its heart. Now that i live that life, now that the dream is a reality, I also realize all its imperfections, all its limitations. But, luckily, it is the best place i have ever lived for practice, for the inner life. The dance of inner and outer, of the subjective and objective waves of reality goes on. .

  5. Loretta says:

    Thanks for your post on sacred activism. This is a powerful conversation that we are engaged in here –

  6. Ramesh says:

    Thanks so much for the link, Loretta!

  7. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
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  8. Ramesh says:

    Dear Joe,
    "complete liberation" in the way you suggest, on two levels, I suggest in the article is only possible on the subjective, spiritual, individual level, not in the world. The world of physicality and mind is by its very nature dualistic and thus subject to change, and suffering and limitations. We may feel pain, but the resultant suffering is optional. When Ramana Maharsi suffered from cancer and eventually died from it, he did not suffer in the ordinary sense, even though his body was ravaged by disease. His body decayed while his spirit remained liberated. Similarly, the process of liberating people and society will be an ongoing process as long as samsara, as long as this world exists in all its perfect imperfections. Complete liberation will not happen on the social, political, economic, or environmental level, only on the spiritual level. Pain will be there, limitations will be there, imperfections will be there, but a few saints, a few liberated souls will now and again opt for complete spiritual liberation or enlightenment. Even while experiencing the imperfections of the mind, the body and of the world. That is what was meant above in my article by subjective approach through objective adjustment. Living in this world is living with and accepting and changing all the world's imperfect objectivities, whether we suffer in the process is optional, spiritually optional, all depending on our level of enlightenment, our level of liberation.

  9. SOFLY_Anna says:

    what a great article! "Enlightenment is having your head and heart in the wide open sky of spirit and your feet firmly planted in the garden of life". It sounds like a middle path…sounds easy, but takes a lot of practice.
    thank you:-)

    • Ramesh says:

      Thank you for your kind comments, Anna! It is indeed easier said than done to live in dynamic balance in this world, on this planet, yet it seems to be our only choice. Thankfully, many people are today awakening to the call of this middle path of co-creating sustainable spirituality and sustainable activism.

  10. […] Yoga & Activism: Are You Ready to Occupy the World from Within? […]

  11. […] yogis organize around the public expression of the yamas and niyamas in a more meaningful way than doing “protest yoga” (???) at Occupy sites. (Individual yogis already do a great deal, I know–what I’m talking about is doing it visibly as […]

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