September 24, 2012

Get Off Your Peaceful Asses & Change the World!

Yoga Evolution from Social Responsibility to Social Activism

It’s only very recent history where this idea that an enormous yoga party class benefiting a struggling community halfway around the planet became vogue.

At first blush it seems like a terrific idea—it keeps people involved in an activity they love, promotes the idea of social responsibility, and creates funds to help people.

But, a few years in, this idea is kinda worn out.

Yoga in America has come to mean “hatha.” Where is true karma—the yoga of action, or of selfless service—these days?

Right now, here at home, we are in the midst of an all-out class, race, gender and sexuality warfare. It seems to me that yogis—the free-thinking, open-minded people that we are—should be up in arms over this. Yogis seem like they ought to be the new activists, volunteers, the new counter-culture creators and social engineers.

But, sadly we’re not.


I think that it’s because yogis think of themselves as positive, peaceful people. Getting all “up in arms” goes against this way of thinking—or way of life.

Ahimsa, or an absence of violence, is our way of life.

I like to consider Ahimsa slightly differently, interpreting it thus:

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

In other words “doing nothing” is called the sin of omission, and by default is doing violence to the world.

How exactly to protest, and create change in the world is a time-worn debate.

It was explored in our country during the Civil Rights Movement, where groups like the Black Panthers and leaders like Malcolm X advocated for the use of violence. In the case of the Black Panthers, it was an offensive maneuver; and in that of Malcolm X—a member of the Nation of Islam—a defensive one. By contrast, Martin Luther King Jr., a Christian, believed that peaceful protest was the most effective weapon against racism and unjust society.

Unfortunately, neither vantage point protected either leader from the violent intentions of those around them.

Whether you agree with one side or the other, both of these groups were doing something, taking action.

More in line with our own yogic spiritual traditions, Ghandi historically toppled the British colonial rule with his satyagraha movement of peaceful revolution, and Siddhartha took to the streets in part because he was shocked and appalled by the way common people suffered. These were radical, activist actions on the part of the prince, and an unprecedented triumph of Ghandi.

Both were taking action, in ways that had direct impact in the lives of others.

In addition to Ahimsa’s influence in our thinking, modern American yogis’ complacency about social injustice also stems from a zealous interpretation and application of Yoga Sutra 1.33:

By cultivating…disregard towards the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calm.

Strenuously ignoring hatred, violence, greed, delusion, wickedness and all of the evils of the world does not make them go away. In fact, it can make us blind to our own shortcomings. Consider this quote from T. Torodov about Etty Hillesum who died in a concentration camp at age 29:

Someone who sees no resemblance between himself and his enemy, who believes that all the evil is in the other and none in himself, is tragically destined to resemble his enemy. But someone who, recognizing evil in himself, discovers that he is like his enemy is truly different. (pg. 200)

Above all, I consider yogis to be people devoted to lifting the veil of illusion and therefore, to change—in their own lives, and thus in the lives of people around them. And to change these things in our world might require us yogis to get our hands a little dirty. Therefore, as yogis, I believe that we have a duty and responsibility to become social activists.

At the beginning of my spiritual education, I was exposed to the work of Ana Forrest and Carolyn Myss. Forrest differentiates her yoga practice in part by training students to hone their attention during class and use it to feeling inward very deeply. When I arrived in New York City, I found that many practices and teachers asked exactly the opposite: that I dedicate the time and energy to someone else. Forrest says that often people come to the mat feeling depleted, exhausted and in dire need of healing.

How can we ask people to give away more of their precious energy when they barely have enough on which to sustain themselves?

Myss echoed this thinking with a quote that is burned in my brain (but I’m not sure exactly which book I read it in),

The greatest gift that you can give the world is to heal yourself.

Forrest and Myss’ teaching gave me permission to do exactly that, without feeling selfish, useless, or as if I was not contributing to the greater good of the world. I believe that this idea has given many other people permission to heal themselves as well.

In addition, these ideas woven together with a particular set of concerns established by the Jivamukti school have promoted the sense that eating clean, eating vegetarian or vegan, and doing yoga, sets off a ripple effect of good in the world. In effect, that taking care of yourself is a form of social activism. Sharon Gannon, who has shaped the idea of activism in New York City and beyond says:

When journalists ask me what my message is or what I am teaching, I reply: “Vegetarianism, environmentalism and the need to take political action.” This response is generally met with bewilderment and another question like, “What are the physical benefits of yoga?” I like to answer, “What could be more physical than what you eat, where you live, and what kind of world you share with others? (realitysandwich.com)

Taking care of yourself is a good and necessary start, because it is indeed true that healing the world and its ills does begin with each individual taking responsibility for themselves and the effects that their choices have on the planet.

But I’ve been noticing for a while now that our community needs to press on and evolve into a new stage of contribution, a bigger vision of change in the world.

And, I’ve noticed that some others are feeling the same way.

This weekend Carol Horton sent me a video testimonial from Sean Corne. It promotes an event from a new group called Sister Giant, an organization founded by Marianne Williamson dedicated to a “New Consciousness. New Politics.” Here Ms. Williamson is giving a brief, heartfelt and reasoned argument for why spiritual people must get involved in politics.

Yogis, it is time for us to engage the salient issues of our time head on. Peaceful warriors are still courageous, and we must get off the sidelines and set an example.

I’m asking that you (we) think differently.

Imagine an army of yogis cleaning up our parks, rivers, and streets. Imagine a “flash mob” that helps out at a local homeless shelter. Imagine a delegation of yogis that volunteer to tutor children. Imagine a team of yogis that plants a community garden. Imagine yogis that are bold enough to say “this is what I believe in, this is what I love—and I show it by taking action that involves me directly with my community.” This is activism.

Please. No more vanity community classes.  No more, “largest classes ever!” No more “we’re so cool and happy” festivals. No more “social media activism.” If you mean it, yogi, do something real. Today. Start with one thing. This is your sadhana.

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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