September 6, 2012

“Off the Mat” Goes Off the Deep End with Yoga at the RNC & DNC. ~ Nathan G. Thompson

Someday, I might use my yoga teaching certificate, and I’ll continue to practice and write about the practice.

But stories like this one, covering yoga “activist” organization Off the Mat’s jumping off the deep end, are exactly why I want nothing to do with the mainstream American yoga world.

The only thing more embarrassing than Clint Eastwood’s rambling and incoherent speech was the Huffington Oasis, an Off The Mat, Into The World collaboration with the Huffington Post. The Oasis offered up massages, yoga classes, organic food and smoothies for RNC delegates and media.

OTM stated their intention in an Elephant Journal article: “The Oasis was designed to provide the politicians, media, etc. a refuge where, instead of grabbing a Red Bull and burger between sessions, they could come to reconnect to their bodies, minds and intentions in an environment providing sustainable methods for grounding, health and healing in an otherwise supercharged environment. . . “

This week, they’ll be doing the same thing at the DNC. Way to be bipartisan.

Mainstream yoga enthusiasts, who are mostly white and economically privileged, have a way of believing that anything that spreads “the message” of yoga is of benefit to the world. It’s such a naive evangelical viewpoint that I find myself wondering if these folks are basically the liberal flip side to conservative, literalist Christians.

A few things about conventions.

First off, they are basically meaningless coronations these days. Circuses designed to feed the populace with a bunch of feel good nonsense about their Presidential candidate, and feel bad nonsense about the other party’s Presidential candidate.

The voting for the party platform is essentially delegates rubber stamping what the elite already approved. Notice that anyone who attempts to buck the agenda in any manner (like those Ron Paul folks) are promptly shunned and marginalized in favor of “party unity.” Nothing really important happens at these affairs, and so even the idea of offering a space for people to “reconnect” so that they can make “good choices” is empty. Because the average delegate’s choices don’t matter in the long run. The biggest thing for them is perhaps getting connected politically and gaining a job or some other position within the party.

Meanwhile, there are thousands of people outside these conventions every 4 years trying desperately to be heard.

Because more and more, the issues that impact everyday people and the planet are completely marginalized, ignored, or maligned by both the Democrats and Republicans.

Courtesy “Today We Have the Power”

I was one of the protesters at the RNC in 2008. The convention was a mere nine blocks away from my apartment, close enough that I had helicopters flying overhead 24/7 for a week. We could have used some yoga practice. Massage. Healthy food. Anything to help us deal with the 3000+ police in riot gear and military vehicles staring us down and watching our every move.

Our messages—widely diverse, and sometimes from opposing sides—were real. Full of life. Not the bullsh*t lies and propaganda being offered inside the conventions, and shuttled out to the masses by every mainstream media outlet imaginable.

The military veterans against the wars, and those supporting them—both could have used some grounding, breathing, and something to eat and drink. The peace activists. The Poor People’s movement activists. The environmentalists. The civil liberties activists. The homeless folks. Hell, even the people who were randomly passing by, the watchers – even they could have used some kind of support in that kind of hostile environment.

However, I have no illusions that a few days offering yoga or meditation or organic food is going to spark a revolution or create the kind of systemic change this country, this world really is in need of.

Suggesting that such an offering is anything other than a short term soothing balm is to trivialize practice. To trivialize what takes decades to bring about in individuals committed to the practice. What OTM and Huffington Post are doing is basically offering some pampering to people who are already being pampered. Because they are needed in order to make the circus look real and legitimate.

Beggar by Peter Kojin

Furthermore, and this is something that yoga evangelists frequently miss, there is an assumption behind OTM’s efforts that convention delegates, media folks and even the candidates themselves are in need of “learning” about “the gifts” of yoga.

When the reality is that some of them already practice yoga, meditation, Christian centering prayer, mindfulness, or any number of other things that help them stay balanced and grounded. And others in situations like a political convention won’t pay attention or give a sh*t about such practices no matter how many fancy asanas are trotted out to entertain them with.

The way I see it, if you are going to do activism, go for the systemic roots. And if you are going to do service, find people who are actually in need. Lord knows that’s really not a difficult task.

How OTM and Huffington managed to bungle both is an understandable consequence of unexamined, privileged narratives, but still a little surprising in magnitude all the same. Perhaps this can be of service to other groups though of what not to do.

There’s always that lesson, if nothing else.


Nathan G. Thompson has been practicing yoga, primarily Iyengar-based, for more than a decade. He is also a long time member of Clouds in Water Zen Center, where he received the dharma name Tokugo (Devotion to Enlightenment) in 2008. He is the author of the spiritual and social justice blog Dangerous Harvests and the conscious relationship blog 21st Century Relationships. In addition, he has written articles for a variety of online and print publications, and has a regular column at the webzine Life as a Human. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.



Editor: Thaddeus Haas

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Evan Ravitz Oct 13, 2012 10:05am

This reminds me of a Simpsons episode, in which the sign on madman Hank Scorpio’s HQ says “Work Out for Better Tyranny.” It’s a fine line between helping Karl Rove feel good as he feverishly works on his “permanent Republican majority” and spreading respect for body and mind and in the macrocosm, earth and truth, to everyone. I’ve been a student of Richard Freeman here in Boulder since we were roomates in 1980 and 1985, before the “yoga wars” he warned me about 15 yrs ago.

Clearly, modern politics are the opposite of “union” (the literal meaning of “yoga.”) Representatives don’t represent our needs for survival let alone our desires. Please consider our “shovel-ready” project for more direct democracy (advocated by Occupy, etc.), endorsed by Richard Freeman and a slew of other great people: http://Vote.org

nathan Sep 9, 2012 11:20am

Ugh. That last comment was posted from my phone with numerous errors.

A correction: I readily admit that there might be some benefit from this effort by Otm, but I still think there are a lot of UNEXAMINED questions and issues raised.

Oh, and with that last sentence in the previous comment, I'm totally fine if folks disagree with my conclusions. Certainly, I've been wrong before, and will miss the mark again.

However, at least take the time to read closely what's been written, and don't just trot out the same old "you're just a judgmental hater" argument. That's so cliche in the mainstream yoga world.

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