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

Via elephant journal
on Sep 6, 2012
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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.



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

  1. Annie Ory says:

    Sing it brother!
    While I don't completely agree with you, I do see your point.

    My rejoinder is, it isn't a question of whether or not the Republicans, or the Democrats, or any of the people attending their conventions, deserve or need yoga, it's whether we deserve to live in a world where those people take yoga. If ONE person at that convention found a quiet internal moment to reflect on him or herself and his or her place in the world, or began a journey that may one day lead them to such a moment, I'm good with it.

    • Agreed on the rejoinder! Having heard directly from someone in service at the RNC, who had the opportunity to work directly with a Congressperson, in a one-on-one setting, its one person to one person. This should please yogi puristst, as it's a teacher-student relationship in it's best form.

      My colleague reported that this woman was brought to tears over and over in this short, private session, simply by being asked to connect her feelings, her emotions and her anxieties into her body, to identify the sensations and recognize that they represent her unprocessed emotions. This was revolutionary information for her, and clearly a value to her experience.

      having been in very similar situations – teaching Corp yoga – it never fails to amaze me how profound some of the most simple – to us – techniques and pranayamas can produce profound emotional, mental and physical change. And how grateful they are – how truly life-changing it is.

      it's common, in our community, to get comfortable in our realm, our kula, our group. Until recently, I had 'lost or misplaced' my ability to experience that wonder of folks finding the practice and the experience and opening themselves to it. I was, until recently, very comfy in a studio environment and taught more advanced classes and simply didn't interact with many folks who were new – now I am, and to be truthful, it's so humbling and inspiring and beautiful. and, I've taken on the mission of teaching yoga to those who don't yet know they need it – not focusing only on those who have a practice, but helping create them in the 'unlikeliest' of people.

      so, perhaps the author has been comfortable in a solid community – a blessing. And perhaps, it's been a while since he's seen someone have that 'breakthrough' or should I say 'break-in". Just conjecture based on experience, but I hesitate to ascribe motive or reason.

      If each one can teach one and reach one, we're all better. when we wait a week later and then 'backseat blog' about the futility of it, then I'm not sure there's any positive outcome, except separation and shame and blame.

      clearly, OTM and HP just did wrong by this author. that's the point of the article. that seems to be a simple opinion, and I consider it with the others.

  2. Nathan says:

    All that effort and money could be used in a more effective mannere, in my opinion. Over at my blog, I suggested that a project doing yoga and mediation for the next Congressional session woul be much more innovative and potentially profound. That’s where some actual decisions are being made by members of both major parties. Offer something stripped of the gloss and do it for an extended period of time. Even if you only attract a few dozen people in Congress or their aides, that would be worthy of the effort and any expense.

  3. Vision_Quest2 says:

    Why do I have nightmares about Paul Ryan and his P90X Yoga being introduced by him to fellow Congressmen because of the media introducing this image of his practice?

    And why do I think it would not do any good?

  4. It's fascinating this desire to make the politicians and the delegates something other than 'people'… you almost demonize them, and suggest over and over that they aren't worthy of the practice, nor would it benefit them, and that's it somehow irresponsible to care for them as people.

    there's a lot of hubris, judgment and separation in what you say. perhaps the actual human to human connection, the ability to treat them, in their 'faults and failings' as worthy of our basic human care, respect and dignity – whether you agree with their politics or not – might actually change an individual.. perhaps.

    at the convention – probably not. in the aftermath, when they've had time to consider, perhaps something will speak to them.

    and, it's easy for those who aren't doing something to call out those who are and judge them, but re-reading your post, and knowing you are both versed in asana and meditation, let me simply ask in 2008 – where were you? why didn't you respond to the need, help your community, offer solace, teach one person to be mindful of your breath?? where were you, except in judgment and separation? all of what you're asking for, seems like you could've done yourself, if your ideal was truly serving those in need, rather than gathering more anger towards the 'system'.

    I get it, it's easy, and you are not unlike any of us. but the more you continue to make yoga only for the cool kids, or that it takes years to 'get it' so why bother (yes, why bother walking somewhere if it's more than two steps; most people should just give up and stand still??), the more you make 'us' and 'them' and brother, if it's not completely clear, we're all in it together. Like folks or not, we share the ride and basic humanity and civility – even in the face of receiving the opposite) is our work.

    The greatest harm this 'community' participates in is separation, where we think we are different, or better, or more enlightened. This is just so contrary to the purpose of yoga, and conscious activism; conscious activism differs in that it aims not to shout down, polarize or blame, but rather to create more connection, more communication and more unity.

    some might even argue that the purpose of yoga is similar to one of our Country's founding principles… "in order to form a more perfect union". This service was done In Order – with purpose – To Form and help foster A "More" Perfect (not perfect clearly) Union.

    It's discouraging to see you working so ardently to prove a point that this is pointless or trivial; it's really easy to go to our studio or our zen center and feel really great about ourselves and our community. It's a risk to go forth into the areas that are unfamiliar and may be hostile. I would hope you would see this work as vital, because as Nathan said, if one person finds benefit, and then alters even one bit of their experience in the legislature. then the work is vital.

    thanks for sharing your opinion and your views. thanks for reading mine. let's endeavor to create more unity, and not look to blame others in service for not 'doing it right'. they are doing service, with their heads and from their hearts. why are you so upset with them is your political narrative, from what it seems.

  5. Nathan says:

    I feel like the points I made were dismissed as simple judgement and hubris. Repeatedly, I have said that yoga should be available to anyone. That you seem to ignore. What is discouraging to ne is how abyss conversation about privilege, race, class and the like gets derailed by calls that the person or people raising the criticisms are not yogic somehow. I readily admit that there might be some benefit from this effort by Otm, but I still think there are a lot of examined questions and issues raised. Many of which are in my post, but there are others I have seen in comments online. Perhaps you might stop lecturing me about what is yogic and what isn’t, and consider that there might both be benefit, and also major drawbacks to the kind of approach OTM took here.

  6. nathan says:

    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.

  7. […] didn’t help that my period of reintegration and recovery coincided with the Democratic National Convention, at which speaker after speaker spouted the same jingoistic affirmations of American exceptionalism […]

  8. Evan Ravitz says:

    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

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