September 11, 2012

Off the Mat, Into the Fray: Yoga at the RNC & DNC. ~ Marianne Elliott

Why the OTM/Huffington Oasis Was an Important Step Towards Real Change.

As a yogi who is passionate about justice and who sees that central government plays a key role in either obstructing or enabling greater social and economic justice, I was encouraged by Off the Mat, Into the World’s choice to engage with the political process this year in the form of YogaVotes.

Seane Corn, Off the Mat co-founder, has said that awareness, connection and participation are core elements of yoga and that they can also be core elements of how we organize ourselves as democratic societies. This, as I understand it, is the intention of YogaVotes:

•  Firstly, to encourage Americans who practice yoga to vote and to consider how the values and principles of yoga might inform their vote.

•  Secondly, to bring the practices and values of yoga to the political process.

Which is how OTM ended up teaching yoga at the Republican National Convention, and on the receiving end of some strong—and snarky—criticism.

After years working in the aid and humanitarian sector, I’m familiar with snark. It’s almost the modus operandi of the aid sector. But I’m not a fan. Snark is criticism plus sarcasm. It’s dismissive and divisive and neither of those promotes the core values of yoga.

One yoga blogger said of OTM’s role at the conventions:

“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.”

Another critic wrote:

“In closing, it is the belief of The Babarazzi that Sean (sic) Corn’s publicity stunt is one of the greatest and most awesomest (sic) fuck-ups mainstream yoga has ever accomplished … and could only come from the minds of silly heads bent on creating more silly head money.”

There are important questions to ask about the role of yoga in the modern Western “democratic” system. Questions about whether the system is so profoundly flawed, that we might choose not to engage with it at all and instead begin a movement for a new—engaged, unified and participatory—system of communal decision-making.

We can have that debate without attacking each other. We can and should approach these issues with intellectual rigor and careful critique. And we can ask those questions with humility, generosity and kindness. The same blogger said:

“If yoga wants to play in politricks, then it has entered the political discourse and made itself available to being dissected in the rich language and discourse of political theory and op/ed.”

I agree. So I’m going to put aside for a moment the snark and try to address the real concerns. Because there are some and they deserve serious consideration.

One of the key criticisms in that post was that there was no need to provide mindfulness practices in this situation, since everyone at the conventions is already so privileged that they have access, by the very nature of their social and economic status.

It’s a question worth asking. But it relies on a relatively narrow definition of “access” and makes certain assumptions about who might be at a political convention. Is everyone at the convention rich? Are they all from privileged backgrounds, where taking time out to care for their body, mind and spirit would be culturally encouraged or even accepted? What barriers, other than poverty and political disenfranchisement, could stand in the way of someone taking up a personal mindfulness practice?

Photo on the left: Kerri Kelly of Off the Mat, Into the World, teaches yoga at the Huffington Post Oasis at the DNC.








There is also an argument to be made that limited resources need to be prioritized for the least well-resourced communities. However, one interesting feature of the set-up of the Oasis is that Huffington Post donated $40k to OTM for providing yoga. OTM was able to provide the teaching through the contribution of volunteers (and given that OTM is a volunteer organization, I see nothing problematic about that). So the money could be re-directed into other programs, such as the Empowered Youth Initiative, that do the sorts of things many critics of the Oasis say OTM should be doing instead.

As Babarazzi said:

“When a yoga practitioner ventures into the territory of homelessness, poverty, and prisons in order to teach the traditional practice of asana and meditation, this practitioner is making accessible something that was previously not.”

The irony is that YogaVotes evolved out of many years of OTM’s work with communities who experience the sharp end of policies on poverty, justice, health and education. What OTM realized was that for real change, they needed to engage with the power structures that create and sustain the situations where we found ourselves continually playing a “service” role.

I agree with one commentor on the Babarazzi post who said:

“Political action aligned with yogic values, in my mind, means addressing structures that enable economic inequality, environmental devastation, racial and gender inequality, etc, to grow and persist. We should not confuse yoga service efforts with political action. They are very different beasts and it is dangerous to lead yoga practitioners to think that political action is sharing yoga class with kids from the hood, while they have no awareness of the structures that create the hood in the first place or how their daily lives contribute to that system.”

This is a very important point and the kind of issue that I would love to see us debate—with respect, compassion and humility—within the yoga community. Indeed, this is being debated and discussed in the OTM community.

This is why the Empowered Youth Initiative includes “a process of mutual inquiry with the young people they wish to serve”, and why it “focuses on exploring the dynamics that surround disenfranchised urban and suburban youth in the United States.” As OTM says:

“The more we as conscious activists can understand this larger socio-economic and political context, the more effective we can be in serving this community.”

Given my own experience working in human rights and social activism, I know it takes a lot of different change levers, activated at a lot of different levels, for unjust power structures and systems to be altered.

We can ask critical questions about the power implications of our choices of strategy. We can stay in open, humble conversation about what we are and are not achieving. We can learn from each other and from our own mistakes. And, as yogis, I hope we can do this in a spirit of kindness. Because if there is one comment in all of this, that I disagree with most, it is this—from a commentor on Babarazzi’s post:

“We can’t be so naive as to think simple kindness has any effect in this situation.”

I’ve seen the effect of simple kindness in some of the most violent and hateful settings imaginable. It is not a cure-all and it is not an excuse for not doing careful analysis of the power dynamics into which we may be wading. But it always has an effect. Always. And often, it has a much greater effect that we credit.

Marianne Elliott is a storyteller, human rights activist and yoga teacher, as well as the creator of 30 Days of Yoga. She is also the regional leader for Off the Mat, Into the World Australia and New Zealand. A recovering lawyer and do-gooder, Marianne wrote Zen Under Fire, a story about what it means to do good in the midst of war. Her writing is fueled by tea, dark chocolate and Yo-Yo Ma.



Editor: Malin Bergman

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