Will Your Yoga Change Your Politics?

Via Hilary Lindsay
on Sep 5, 2012
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Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field.

~ From “The Essential Rumi”

Arianna Huffington the famous conservative turned liberal voice of the liberal political internet, pitched her Oasis of peace on the harsh sands of the Republican Convention offering yoga on the menu. It was an innocent gesture that evoked memories of flowing haired women in granny gowns offering daisies to cops about to lob tear gas bombs into a peaceful resistance of the sixties

I don’t know if she or yoga facilitator Seane Corn was thinking the yoga was anything more than a good will gesture to facilitate relaxation but maybe there was more. During the early days of Bush/Cheney I had a hankering to teach yoga to the highest office with illusions that I could facilitate an awareness that would stop their pesky destructiveness. The key word is “I” because the practice of yoga is a slow and personal unfolding. That was more a symptom of my own ego.

If you hope to reshape politics, deeply scored belief systems ingrained by generations of God and family have to change.  The influence of a teacher might be a shortcut to that natural process but that is putting eggs in a basket that might be full of holes or more specifically; assholes and history warns us to be discriminating about who we follow. I didn’t consider myself that asshole but who knows who might have thought differently. And I wonder if Seane Corn may not be subject to the same ego thinking that I was at that time.

The ongoing discussion of modern yoga has turned from social action to politics.

Social action is an extension of politics where politics is defined by “the interrelationships between the people, groups, or organizations in a particular area of life especially insofar as they involve power and influence or conflict.” When folks extend themselves by sharing, not forcing, the yoga that eased their own burdens it is a social action. There is a distinct need for assistance of some kind and a direct offering. But what does yoga have to do with the clumsy multi-headed beast of American politics

When yoga became a bedfellow of political activism in the sixties it joined a counter culture that was already in place. For some it became the companion guide to disenfranchisement with our capitalist, expansionist way of life. Thanks to consumerism, yoga is now culture. How does mainstream culture affect change in culture? Doesn’t mainstream culture fall to its basest denominator? It would certainly be naïve to assume that all people who practice yoga are nice, good hearted, whatever. Really, there isn’t any generalization you can make about the yoga population. There is not one face or one voice or one belief. Years from now we can look back at what became of Yoga when she was a Cover Girl.

What are we learning in yoga that would change our deepest belief systems? What kind of yoga experience will make someone change deeply held beliefs?

If one is happy with his church, pastor, community or politics what could change any of that? And is it the assumption of yoga activists that liberals will remain open minded and conservatives will see the light? Or perhaps no one is attached to outcomes but doing what they see is their duty as citizens. That would be very Bhagavad-Gita though another lesson there is not to just be unattached to outcome but to waste the enemy who threatens the life of the people you love. Just do it without vengeance in your heart. And who is the enemy? That depends on what you believe is true. That is the complication of politics

Politics reflect our collective beliefs but collective is an anomaly. When there is more than one person, there is more than one impression. Multiply that by a country. In this country there are a few parties and most of us are divided between two of them.  And in yoga there are a few parties also.

Who will appoint themselves speakers in the name of yoga?  Why turn an indefinable experience into a billboard?

I am the author of a piece that indirectly links the calling of the Yamas to the hearts of our founding fathers in presenting restraints to ensure a fair and balanced government. I do think there’s a resonance between the two. But that is not a reason to stand under a yoga banner when it comes to politics. It diminishes yoga and if yoga is not reduced there could be some confusion between the mixing of religion and government as there is often a Bhakti aspect to yoga.

Yoga makes you feel better or you wouldn’t do it—but does yoga make you a better person? What is a better person?

That’s subjective isn’t it?

Are you better if you believe in a woman’s right to choose or a fetus’s right to life? Are you better if you believe marriage is between a man and a woman or some other configuration? Are you better because you get mutts from the pound or you buy designer dogs? Are you better because you are vegan or you’re on some caveman diet? Are you better because you believe you should dedicate time or money to poorer communities or because you believe in survival of the fittest? Are you better because you believe you should own weapons or because you think no one should? Are you better because you believe in capitalism or socialism, expansion or isolationism? Are you better because you are a Christian or something else? I know what I think is best but I also know many people who think differently.

Here in the South the scent of conservatism wafts from church windows with the innocence of peach pie or the acrid breeze of brimstone like a day old plate of “meat and three”.  We are neighborly. Manners, an organized form of kindness, allow us to commune no matter our religion or politics. We are not all conservative but it is pervasive. Minding our own business is requisite to manners.

On the surface we share more than what separates us; a desire to be good and to be liked, dreams for our children, dreams for ourselves. Music, partying, food and fun bring us together. They are great neutralizers to our differences. In the last decade yoga classes have become common ground and neutralizers as well.

What happens when disparate people of indomitable will have different ideas of right and wrong?

We can relate to the call for persistence, confidence and joy in effort heralded by Pattabi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar and Bikram Choudrey. Classes that encourage resolute spirit are popular. We can relate to the warrior spirit. We don’t back off. Our self exploration is tied to our powerful physicality.

Some people look to yoga for relaxation. Classes encourage us to be good to ourselves. We have too much stress. We should not worry. The future will take care of itself: Bliss. Why worry? Only neurotics worry. Neurotics tend to be overly concerned by unfounded things like climate change according to detractors on the other side of opinion.

Yoga’s philosophical and political underpinnings in the popular teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita and the Yoga Sutras edify that our actions reflect us and affect our community. We have obligations to ourselves and others. Those obligations are an individual choice in this country and what constitutes correct behavior is open to interpretation.

For better or worse, and often worse, I have engaged in heated debates with clients over all manner of politics. I’ve worked with liberals, hippies, yuppies, anarchists, bigots, racists, right wingers, players and posers. I’ve done time with stardom, privilege, sickness, sadness and homeless. I have seen acceptance between the fabricated and often mismatched family members of a yoga group but I have not seen people change the fabric of the beliefs that inform their politics.

What is the common denominator to soften our differences?

If yoga cannot melt all people’s opinions of right and wrong into one can it allow us to understand and be at peace with choices we don’t make?  Does that happen in physical classes where metaphors and will power are defined in the postures? Does it come in revelations of dissolving fears and memories through breath and body? Is it by studies of historical teachings? Does meditation affect our beliefs?

My own feeling is that all this gently changes us and over generations might affect our politics but something earth shaking would have to occur to dissolve emotions that are so tied to our pasts. And then we have to be willing to let go of all we know to be true. And we will not have to define ourselves by our practice, whatever that is.


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About Hilary Lindsay

Hilary Lindsay created the first comprehensive yoga program in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans, choreographed videos for athletes, introduced yoga and meditation to the Nashville public school system and continues to work one on one with private clients including the Nashville Predators. She has been covered by popular magazines and television shows and has worked for a variety of publications as a yoga expert. She authored a chapter in Yoga In America, a book published at the forefront of the discussion among yoga teachers about contemporary yoga in America. Additional writing can be found at www.bitchinyoga.wordpress.com as well as the Journal pages of her yoga site. Hilary teaches classes and workshops in consciousness through movement. Her medium is yoga. Her method is exploring the language of the body in light of the eight limbs. Find her at activeyoga.com.


22 Responses to “Will Your Yoga Change Your Politics?”

  1. yogaforliberty says:

    When I learned about the Libertarian's non-aggression principle and compared that to yoga's principle of ahimsa, I changed my politics.

  2. lonesomelotusyoga says:

    Well, if yoga doesn't change you, then you aren't doing it right. So I'll make that assertion. I'm aware too that prejudices can be pretty persistent. And we seem capable of holding incompatible views concurrently, apparently without much internal distress. So it's a tall order. But if yoga moves someone away from their selfishness – as it can – then I am content to let that person's politics play out the way they will. Thanks, Hilary.

  3. Thanks for responding. I do know some Libertarian's who feel as you do. Now you've got me wondering if non-aggression is not more Buddhist than Yoga and if a principle of non-aggression can conflict with non-violence. Food for thought is all I hope for in these posts so thank you again.

  4. Good point my friend. I agree that yoga changes you. I am saying that I haven't seen it change politics. While prejudices are on the surface, the thought forms that lock us up can be deeply held in our matrix. Change can be subtle and multi-layered. We can get along with people who hold different viewpoints on emotional issues and that's a beautiful practice. But if the different viewpoint is harmful in your opinion you would not support that. That is politics. You speak of moving away from selfishness and that can happen but perhaps selfishness is subjective, eh? But then I don't intend to inform but to discuss. Thank you for being here.

  5. I recommend this video by Michael Stone as he goes into the detail of how ahimsa relates to the psychology of yoga and how it guides action. http://vimeo.com/18540364

  6. CLO says:

    Loved it Hil, thanks!

  7. Rollingeyes says:

    "Different" needn't be "bad," and it's only testimony to how much the conservatives have painted different as bad that anyone would think those differences need to be 'softened." Yet the "common denominator" that was once used to talk across difference — rational discussion, facts, etc — is now gone out of public life. Yoga cannot take its place. This is a point where, finally, "western" Enlightenment politican philosophy has to still get a nod. Without a social contract, human beings revert to "nature in red tooth and claw." In social contract, people must use educated, rational discussion across difference to figure things out together. Yet this has been made impossible by the cultural embrace of ignorance, the destruction of education, and a political process made of lies. Yoga can't take its place because yoga doesn't teach anything about rationality or argument.

  8. Rollingeyes says:

    This has become clear in virtually ALL recent contr yoversies within the "yoga community" over sex between teachers and students, gurus, etc. Yoga can only, finally, get you more in contact with your body. you can become quite the adept and never change your MIND about anything, despite all the glowy-eyed peons to "love" and "oneness." If you believe that there are basic, natural, ordained separate spheres between men ad women, black and white, etc., you cn go on believing those things in yoga, be just be more feel-good about it, because yoga has no vocabulary at all for social justice. It work at the level of "mystic oneness," not civic relations, law, history, or structures of oppression. if you already have leftist commitments, yoga can help you with your activism. Yet there is no reason why the most vicious conservatives wouldn't or couldn't use yoga to help them continue to legally, institutionally, and culturally oppress and exploit other people.

  9. Rollingeyes says:

    ps sorry for the misspellings — typing at a rapid pace on a keyboard…

  10. carolhortonbooks says:

    I, too, have been wondering about this "Off the Mat and into the Democratic and Republican conventions" episode and what it signiifies about yoga and politics. Personally, I feel that political engagement is important and really, a responsibility of citizenship. That doesn't mean that we need to be heavily involved day in and day out. But we should make an effort to be informed, to vote, and to do more on the issues that we care about most deeply when we can. That is true (in my opinion) regardless of anything having to do with yoga.

    I think that the yoga comes in as a means of engaging more skillfully – avoiding burnout, staying balanced, managing our emotions, recognizing our deep connection with others (even those damn TPers), etc. But to be political in an intelligent way, we need to be educated and informed about politics. Practicing yoga has nothing to do with that directly, although it can definitely create the conditions under which we can be political in more ethically and spiritually grounded ways.

  11. hilarylindsay says:

    This is a reply to yogaforliberty

    Yes, thank you for the video. I enjoy his thoughtful work.

    Our system is here and not something we will be getting rid of. It is our story and yes, stories can change, we can and do change. I find greatest change in the subtle work in my practice. We witness, We shift perspectives here and there. The act of non-participation in politics is also an action. Then there are a couple of parties.

    This post should have said, "Will Your Yoga Change Your Political Party as that is what I meant but I did not reduce it to that. Perhaps I should have. I do not see people change parties. I know Republicans and Democrats and Libertarians and Tea Party people who would sit and then think that the principles of their party follow non-violence, honesty, using energy wisely!, and not stealing or unnecessary acquisition. This post was not a shallow attempt to say that yoga doesn't change your perspective but that the political arena is not an appropriate place for asana participation- that is ridiculous- and that the yoga practiced right now by the majority of Americans will not change their politics. Therefore trotting yoga out as a banner diminishes it and assumes the yogis are enlightened or as is better described by Patanjali,they see the light. Both sides think they see the light. The stories are held strong by the collective that is U.S.

  12. As for non-agression and the hardening around personal stories that are the aggression of a nation, one might ponder if the aggression of a nation does not have the greater pull now. But that is another article and a big discussion. We might also quibble over the aggressiveness of people that further their personal stories for the good of the whole even when the whole didn't ask for that. It's not enough to read scripture and discuss idealism without specifics regarding the reader's lives. Information must be applied intelligently and in the manner it will make most sense. The wrong time or place can mean everything. __

  13. Sorry, meant to give you the opening to that so please see my comment below to you.I am having difficulty with intense debate.

  14. Your rapid typing indicates excitement. I thank you for the passionate response. One yoga student (someone else's) told me she thought that yoga made your own ideas more entrenched.

    I tend to agree with that. I am not sure how much yoga and mediitation while living this time compressed life it takes to reduce or remove the mortar that surrounds our beliefs, our stories of ourselves. Everytime we shed a little we are challenged a little. It is not straight path if you don't live in a bubble.

    I also agree with you about getting the vocabulary straight first.

    We are young in our collective yoga practice. It is empowering and sheds awareness but will not radicalize us unless we are ready to be broken or are already there.

    Our politics are a mess and we can fix them in tangible ways. We need campaign finance reform and term limits for Congress. If we get rid of corruption and a leadership based on money and favors we might also get rid of extremism. Then we have the space to breathe and think and change.

    The yoga is not the sword or the ad campaign.

  15. Thanks Carol,
    Yes, yoga beneath the surface is good fortification. I had made a facetious comment on someone's blog that if OTM and Ms. Huffington wanted to bring relevant yoga forth at the RNC they could have posted the yamas outside their door and anyone checking yes to all of them could have the foot massage or whatever they were massaging.

    But the truth is that even the yamas are infused as the Ten Commandments with Bhakti and would be suspect and more than that, I'll wager that most people hold the opinon that they are kind, not stealing or overtaking or being dishonest. Voters more or less believe that their partie's platforms upholds those ideals as well. I do not know what of yoga would bring direct awareness that would change one's mind.

    I should have called this post: DID You Change Your Political Party Because of Your Yoga? Oh well, Thanks for being here and adding much thought to the discussion

  16. Sherry says:

    At the end of a long, productive week I enjoyed reading this conversation. Having given this very little thought I have serious doubts that even a very strong yoga practice would cause one to change political parties. It would definitely improve one's physical response (anxiety, blood pressure, etc.) to participation in any political party.

  17. Sherry says:

    Oh, and thanks Hilary, for the provocation. Enjoy the rest of the race!

  18. Thanks for weighing in here, Sherry.

    Age, awareness and a yoga practice probably softens things for me but then I've been practicing yoga and meditation since I was a kid and I don't know how I would have been otherwise. Sometimes it seems like everything is going by in slow motion. There's an awful lot to see.

  19. Hillary, I can tell you are very sincere and these are especially good questions to be asking. I wonder what your politics are? Will you vote Obama?

    If I understand you correctly, you are pointing out this peculiarity that yoga doesn't change a person's politics. I've been deeply questioning this fact as well and it has made me really question continuing the practice of yoga. I see fairy skilled practicioners with politics that I feel are in contrast to the teachings of yoga. So I think at least American yoga won't change your politics.

    The main reason I think this is the case is because we Americans don't practice with a Guru. Without guidance from someone who has achieved Yoga, become liberated, than all we can really aspire to is physical fitness and proficiency in poses. I think some of the naturally self-reflected may get a little farther, but they must stay committed over the long-haul. Without encouragement from a guru, I don't see this happening on their own.

    Second, America is an extremely aggressive society. The parties are themselves aggressive, evidenced by any competition from a 3rd party is quickly extinguished. When people choose a party, it becomes their story, and they become extremely attached. Also, since majority of Yogis seem to be liberal, people who do question their party will start to be left out of the group. Yoga in america is a lifestyle more than a practice, so you either ascribe to the politics of the lifestyle or keep it to yourself.

    Yoga teaches us to question our identifications, but very few yogis get this. As soon as you graduate teacher training you start identifing with being a yoga teacher. You tell all your friends, you change your wardrobe, start wearing mala, etc.

    Also, I think americans don't really commit to practice. Yoga is a pyramid scheme, so studios promote teacher trainings, not commitment to practice. If yoga really promoted yogic values it would never be billion dollar industry. a

    So I think a true practice of yoga would change a person's politics. I think a good person to ask would be Ram Das. I wonder if his politics has changed since he got "Stroked."

  20. I agree with much that you say here regarding yoga. Also, perhaps it’s telling that relatively few people on a yoga site opened a post discussing yoga with politics. And yes, you understand what I was writing about. Thank you for hanging in there.

    I’m not sure what one would consider enlightened but I do know people who have tremendous light; intelligence, equanimity, kindness. I have many gurus and some I really do not know but they changed me in some way.

    I have had yoga teachers who spread light, who were inspirational examples of the practice of yoga.

    I do have not had the experience of being the follower of one enlightened being. I cannot speak of that.

    This country began as the consolidation of individual dreams. That consolidation has become an intractable construct now. The construct has to be amended. It entices politicians toward corruption.

    I would be curious to see what the government of a country of devoted yogis would look like. India has many problems but I have a superficial observation of the culture so I can’t speak about that.

    Yes, I am a blue girl in a red state but I am not entangled in party lines. I rather liked the violet that’s the blending of those colors before red became screaming neon.

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