Yoga, Politics & Transcendental Philosophy: Taking the Election Seriously!

Via Julian Walker
on Sep 28, 2012
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Recently, there have been harsh criticisms of yoga and activism organization Off the Mat, Into the World for its attempts at a non-partisan political campaign embodied by YogaVotes, an offshoot aimed at getting more yogis registered to vote—but especially by the members’ presence offering yoga and massage at both the RNC and DNC last month.

Full disclosure: I am friends and colleagues with most of the major players and have no bone to pick. But I do think there is an interesting issue to explore regarding spiritual philosophy and political engagement.

First let me commend Chelsea Roff on her really great interview with Seane Corn and Kerri Kelly from OTM.  I also want to salute them both for how they have responded to the often unkind and perhaps unfair criticism. I would also like to direct readers to the new book 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics & Practice, which features several excellent essays on the subject of yoga and politics.

I, for one, think it is a bold and powerful statement to go into the lion’s den of the RNC and offer space for people to engage in practices that we believe can evoke compassion, mindfulness and a deeper connection to our embodied intelligence. I am not sure this would have made any difference in their political persuasions, but perhaps it might shift their consciousness over time. Being introduced to a grounded practice might inspire extending self-care to caring for others. Their religion may already represent this for them, but might stop short at unbelievers, gays and socialists.

Mostly, I am going to respond to Seane’s central message, as it perfectly exemplifies a popular though perhaps confused underlying article of faith in our community.

“Yoga teaches me that we are all connected and that issues like war, poverty, illiteracy, and violence exist because we act as if there is an “other;” an “us” and “them.” This is the opposite of yoga and is a collective misperception. If I want to be a change agent and participate in creating real healing and peace in the world, then I have to recognize the places in myself that perpetuate this limited belief of separation as well. I have to recognize (and heal) that the very thing I judge in others is something I too embody.”

This sentiment expresses a very common idealistic and sincere meme in the yoga community, but I think it is incorrect. As with a lot of spiritual philosophies, it blurs the line in a confusing way between inner work and outer reality, or between relationships based in trust, love and communication and those simply based on competitive  beliefs or agendas.

First of all, I hear a lot of people say what “yoga” supposedly “teaches.” As is often the case, I am not sure where exactly the teaching “that issues like war, poverty, illiteracy, and violence exist because we act as if there is an “other;” an “us” and “them” is sourced. Granted, she may be saying that this is simply what she has learned somehow from doing yoga —fair enough.

Patanjali, though, is no great activist for saving the world —his advice is to transcend it. Traditional Hindu culture is in fact quite mired down in an orthodoxy that oppresses women and people of lowers castes, and is flush with religious teachings that justify such biases on cosmic grounds.

Personally, I don’t care which religious idea anyone uses to justify their political philosophy. I would rather hear well-reasoned arguments and references to evidence any day of the week. No one’s pet metaphysical intuitions are bedrock; religious conservatives have their own deeply held faith, but that should not be what politics is about, whatever side of the aisle you fall on. I would even go so far as to say that in the spirit of separating church and state it is inappropriate to make a political argument on religious grounds.

That aside, the underlying metaphysical belief here is:

We are all one and all of the world’s problems come from a limiting misperception that sees duality. Duality of course creates opposition and the way beyond this is to transcend duality, dwell in oneness and overcome separation….

This popular way of trying to reconcile the dissonance between pop spirituality and the political predicaments we face is a kind of mash-up of two different philosophies:  Patanjali’s (quite dualist) notions and  Advaita Vedanta-esque claims. Patanjali’s emphasis on becoming identified with the “seer” instead of the “seen”—in other words, transcending the world of form/physical reality gets stirred into a perhaps misappropriated Advaita riff about an ultimate enlightenment that is beyond all duality. This hodge-podge gloss on Indian “philosophy” is then boiled down soundbyte-style into a basic principle: we have to overcome separation with love and higher consciousness. That’s what “yoga” teaches!

Sounds nice. The real question is: How?



I hear echos of the 20th century King/Ghandi/Mandela model of noble peaceful resistance. What may be missed is that these non-violent resisters of oppression were extremely direct and righteous in their message. They understood their distinction between right and wrong, oppression and freedom, as well as what kinds of ideas and beliefs made the world better or worse. They made no apologies for being for certain ideas and against others, and for respectfully but directly naming their enemies.

While I can empathize, the problem may be a fairly typical one for spirituality: It is tough to reconcile abstract metaphysical beliefs and the uplifting feelings one has when in a safe space with a like-minded, loving community with the tough and sometimes ugly realities of the world we live in. There is oppression, there are crucial and tangible issues of the day, and real people’s lives are being devastated by bad policies based in incorrect beliefs about the nature of reality.

Despite its status as an ultimate transcendental trump card, “oneness” is context dependent: being non-oppositional in conflict resolution with people who value coming to a loving place of shared active listening is essential. But in politics, where people really are pushing an agenda and have no interest in making nice, not so much. Oneness takes a back seat here regardless of the power of your intention or the love in your heart.

In the second part of the quote Seane says:

“If I want to be a change agent and participate in creating real healing and peace in the world, then I have to recognize the places in myself that perpetuate this limited belief of separation as well. I have to recognize (and heal) that the very thing I judge in others is something I too embody.”

I  hear in this a version of the idea from Jungian psychology about “the shadow.” This says we do well to look at our own unconscious material and how we may be projecting this out into the world. The noble idea is that by working on ourselves we take responsibility for not being part of the problem we perhaps have a tendency to only see (or project) “out there.”

Very often I hear yogis go to the extreme of saying that if one did all of one’s own inner work there would in fact be nothing out there that could push your buttons and bring up “judgment.” The tricky part about this is that there are plenty of real problems out there, and we are not just projecting our shadows when we see this, have feelings about it and engage in oppositional action!

My key point: If we follow the metaphysical belief that we have to overcome separation in order to heal the world or else we’ll be part of the problem, then logically it should imply that when we are in a state of promoting unity, love and seeing the atman in everyone it will naturally inspire resolution.

But this does not appear to be pragmatic or in fact true. I think the conservatives would love it if liberals just stopped being oppositional and approached them in the spirit of love and compromise. This is how Obama approached the first two years of his presidency. Even though Democrats held a majority in the House and Senate, he tried to negotiate with Republicans on every issue to meet them halfway. They greeted this gesture toward overcoming separation by bullheadedly blocking every bill he tried to pass, even ones they had previously supported—even legislation they had themselves proposed.

The problem may be in trying to apply a transcendentalist philosophy that seeks to go beyond conflict to a real world situation that is very much about conflict. Contrary to feel-good beliefs, conflict is not an illusion; it is not a misperception of a deeper unity. This is a disguised religious belief about ultimate truth that usually goes unquestioned, and I would suggest that the next stage of integrating yoga and activism has to do with moving beyond an untenable and frankly somewhat superficial core philosophy. The world will still be the world, we will all still love yoga, and yoga will hopefully inspire us to do good, but we do not need a quasi-religious and ungrounded metaphysics in order to do so.

Distinctions that Matter

It actually matters that the evidence says global warming is a serious threat to human survival. Climate change deniers are wrong. We cannot resolve this issue by seeing both sides as one.

It matters that women should have a right to reproductive freedoms. We cannot overcome the religious right by chanting Ommm while we massage their feet. They’d accuse us of witchcraft anyway!

It matters that homosexuality is actually not an immoral lifestyle choice but a biological reality, that marriage equality is the next frontier in civil rights. We cannot make a stand for our gay brothers and sisters by singing kumbaya with the homophobic Christians who want to segregate gays from their supposedly moral society.

Historical figures like King and Ghandi and Mandela made it absolutely clear that on certain issues we have a moral imperative to speak up for what is right. Does this create tension? Sure. Is it divisive? Absolutely. But not as divisive and tense as living under religious and political oppression.

Many of us are drawn to spirituality because we want peace; we have low tolerance for conflict. Sometimes this is because of trauma, or because we are just sensitive people. For spirituality to be sustainable it must enable us to tolerate conflict with more resilience—to stand our ground, speak our truth, feel the feelings and keep honestly learning about reality. I know that the folks at OTM are on the same page with their extraordinary activism and service work. We might do better not to oversimplify real world political issues with well-meaning platitudes.

Conflict is part of life and we live in a democracy that says, “Yes, argue, make your case, try to sway people to your point of view, you have a right to free speech! We’ll let the people vote based on what you say.” Conflict eventually leads to the best ideas being adopted—especially in an educated society, but let’s not get off the point!

What we sometimes miss as we blithely romanticize ancient and faraway cultures is that the modern democratic values that lead to a party political system, free speech and divisive debate are actually a massive step forward from dictatorships, one-party states, warlords, caste systems, monarchies, theocracies, and the litany of oppressive realities in non-democratic countries. Democracy says: Argue for what you want as strongly as you’d like, we ain’t gonna kill you or put you in jail for it!

Is it possible then that we have misnamed the problem?  Perhaps it’s not that divisive political debate overlooks the ultimate truth of “oneness”, but that there is often a lack of incisive critical thinking and compassionate concern driving those debates. This is where yoga might really make a difference politically.

So here’s my suggestion: Spiritual practice is about cultivating compassion, insight, ethical acumen, resilience and clarity. The integration of spirituality and politics can be about speaking truth to power in lucid, well-informed ways that invoke compassion and non-violence as powerful values driving our reasonable and evidenced positions.

Remember, the religious right has no problem claiming the high ground on values. In our attempt not to be similarly fundamentalist, we spiritual liberal folks often abdicate the importance of actually making a stand for the real liberal values: equality, compassion, dignity, reason, evidence, education, and protecting those less fortunate or weaker than ourselves.

Too often we think the opposite of fundamentalism is relativism, when actually it is reason, the freedom to think critically, and respect for evidence.

I really do get the evolving experiment that my beloved friends Hala, Seane, Suzanne, Kerri and others at OTM are attempting. Getting people registered to vote regardless of political affiliation is good, but a more this-worldly approach to politics would be more in line with the other amazing missions they enact in support of the disenfranchised, poor and oppressed peoples of the world. Letting go of the unnecessary posturing that accompanies the metaphysics I deconstructed above seems to be necessary for this to happen.

This article originally appeared on


About Julian Walker

Julian Walker is the founder of where he supports new and established yoga teachers in living their dreams through business development. He is a writer who has been teaching yoga since 1994, and co-teaches the Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind Yoga Teacher Training in LA with Hala Khouri.Julian's writing is featured in the book 21st Century Yoga available on


9 Responses to “Yoga, Politics & Transcendental Philosophy: Taking the Election Seriously!”

  1. Pankaj Seth says:

    Your analysis contains a huge error, and which arises due to taking Yoga out of its native context and presenting it as a stand alone philosophy.

    In the classical tradition to which Yoga belongs, Hinduism, there are considered to be 4 aims of life… Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. Yoga is aimed at Moksha, but not the other 3 and which are part of life. So whatever Patanjali says has to do with a particular aim, but which is not the whole story of a human life, does not talk to the other aims, towards which approaches other than Yoga are provided in the classical context.

    For Artha, there is the 'Artha Shastra' and the 'Panchatantra'.
    For Kama, there is the 'Kama Sutra' and the 'Natyashastra'
    For Dharma, there are many texts which speak to 'duty', such as the Bhagavad Gita. There are many Dharma Shastras.

    So to try to reduce all of the classical context into Patanjali's Yoga Sutra will sure create the kind of pseudo problems that you present in this blog. To take Yoga out of its native context and to try to digest it alone will cause indigestion. There is a genius which has produced the entire corpus known as Hindusim. It exists as a whole. To isolate an aspect and then critique it as not addressing everything that comes up in life is to set up a strawman and burn it down.

  2. yogamatt says:

    I really like this blog in that it identifies that some people do not address reality properly.

    As for what is true "Hinduism", there really is no such thing. Hinduism is a word given to a massive collection of philosophies, scriptures, and stories embraced by the majority of India. There are many different ideas and thoughts to find within those boundaries.

    The real name for Hinduism used by many is "Sanatana Dharma" or eternal truth.

  3. yogijulian says:

    i have no idea why you think i am trying to do any of this pankaj..

  4. Julian,
    I've written two posts regarding this issue; one here and one on my own blog, bitchin yoga, but you have summed this up better in one post than I did in two, encompassing all and in more depth than I did.

    No matter how one interprets yoga and aside from yoga it remains true that this political climate at this time calls for appropriate actions.

    Whether one looks to yoga,religion or the lessons of parents on how to treat other people does not really matter. Whether one has had time and opportunity to explore their beliefs will not change the system in play at this time. What matters is understanding the situation and approaching it with intelligence and compassion. We are all people. We have different ideas of right and wrong. We even have different opinions on what is harmful and not, what is greedy and not and it goes on and on.

    If one believes in something and wants to be effective, honest discussion and action toward concrete resolution is a good path. Anything else looks like something else.

  5. Hala Khouri says:

    Julian, I appreciate your post and agree with your reflections. Most of your sentiments are actually core to the Off the Mat philosophy. That said, you have taken these statements made by Seane and then made some inaccurate assumptions about the overall Off the Mat philosophy. This is a very valuable post, but I don’t think it is a fair response to what we do at OTM.

    You say “The tricky part about this is that there are plenty of real problems out there, and we are not just projecting our shadows when we see this, have feelings about it and engage in oppositional action!”

    Yes! We agree. BUT without awareness of how “out there” mirrors our personal stuff, we are likely to be blinded by our own reactivity and emotion and thus less effective at dealing with external problems. Often, the issues that we are passionate about are a reflection of our personal wounds. If we haven’t done the inner work to be aware of that, then we can’t distinguish what is a projection of my own suffering and where does the true suffering lie? We DO project our shadow onto the word, and the more we know our shadow the clearer our perception of the world is.

    We train folks in our intensives to be engaged in a personal process so that they can face the suffering of the world in a grounded and rational way and then take action to address the injustices they see as effectively and non-hysterically as possible

    You also say, “The problem may be in trying to apply a transcendentalist philosophy that seeks to go beyond conflict to a real world situation that is very much about conflict. Contrary to feel-good beliefs, conflict is not an illusion; it is not a misperception of a deeper unity. “

    Again, a good point but not one that is relevant to Off the Mat. We never say that conflict is an illusion, so I’m not sure where you got this from. We spend half of our trainings asking people to name and feel what it is about the world that breaks their heart, and then develop plans of action for what they think they can contribute.

    Your points are good, but misdirected. We appreciate your reflections because what we are learning from your post as well as others about us, is that we have to get very deliberate about the language we use in interview and the press. In this virtual world where sound bytes are used to justify long essays about us, we are vulnerable to unfair analyses and criticism. There is plenty about us to criticize and we don’t shy away from that. But criticisms coming from people who don’t know our work isn’t helpful to us. This week we invited a social justice advocate and facilitator to our intensive so she can observe us, and give us in depth feedback about our language, approach and teaching. I’m sure she will offer us some important feedback on our blind spots and errors as well as support for what we are doing effectively.

    You are a dear friend and ally to us, and if you could experience our work, I think you could give us some important reflections. But pulling one quote and using that is not effective for us. While your thoughts are important ones for people to think about, it feels like you are using us unfairly to argue a position that you are personally passionate about (as am I).

    One final thought:

    You say, “But in politics, where people really are pushing an agenda and have no interest in making nice, not so much. Oneness takes a back seat here regardless of the power of your intention or the love in your heart.”

    I ask you this: aren’t politicians who have no interest in making nice human beings who have their own wounds, conditioning and insecurities? Why is the implication that tending to their psyches as one possible way of trying to inspire positive change, seen as a fluffy ideal? Again, OTM isn’t asking folks to chant OM or visualize pink energy around people to change things, we are asking people to look at the larger context of a problem and address ALL of it. Don’t just work on healing survivors of rape, have the courage to investigate what trauma the rapist has that may have led him to perpetrate. That is when solutions begin. If we lock up all the perpetrators and ignore them, then we spend all our time just cleaning up their mess. But if we ask, “Why do people do bad things?” and have a little empathy (because it’s likely bad things happened to them) we are one step closer to finding a solution.

    Seane says hi and has no interest in debating this with you but would like to challenge you to an arm wrestle! 😉

  6. yogijulian says:

    part 1

    hey my friend – listen, i hope i made it clear throughout the article that i feel OTM's message and work in the world is exactly what you say above. my sense was that the recent political stance was maybe out of step with all the stuff you folks do that i admire and respect so much.

    i have no beef with any of you and think what you have accomplished is absolutely breath-taking. i was just trying to figure out what the backlash was about and offering my own two cents in terms of a subject i find fascinating, which is how to deepen the yoga communities sense of "philosophy" and how this relates to real life.

    you are right: i have not experienced your work first hand – but am well-aware by all accounts of how deeply you consider guiding people into the relationships between personal issues and motivations toward activism. you really offer something unique and substantive – i guess it because of this that i found myself scratching my head about the non-partisan position and what it was hoping to accomplish.

    i am sure you are all exhausted and perhaps frustrated with having to deal with criticism, attacks and misinterpretation – i did not mean to add to that cacophony! sorry if i did.

    i also agree (and hope i made clear) that there is an underlying philosophy that generally goes unquestioned in the spiritual community at large that i was addressing and that i felt seane's quote in some ways reflected/reiterated.

    it was also why i wasn't sure about whether or not to come to the occupy LA yoga event. some of the language just didn't make sense to me in terms of how "yoga" was being invoked in terms of protesting but demanding unity and a non us vs them attitude. something in all of that just seems a bit off. i am sure it will continue to evolve though – and hell, maybe i will understand it differently in time.

  7. yogijulian says:

    part 2

    you asked where i got the idea that anyone was saying that conflict was an illusion, well here's the quote on which i based the whole article:

    “Yoga teaches me that we are all connected and that issues like war, poverty, illiteracy, and violence exist because we act as if there is an “other;” an “us” and “them.” This is the opposite of yoga and is a collective misperception. If I want to be a change agent and participate in creating real healing and peace in the world, then I have to recognize the places in myself that perpetuate this limited belief of separation as well. I have to recognize (and heal) that the very thing I judge in others is something I too embody.”

    i interpret the statements above about the belief of separation, and us vs them being a "collective misperception" as a way of saying that this misperception (or illusion) is in fact what creates conflict and that in order to overcome conflict we have to see through the illusion (or misperception) of us vs them.

    my central point is that there really is conflict (or us vs them) on the political level and that this may have been part of why OTM was getting such flack for taking a non-partisan position in electoral politics.

    i also tried to make sense of how "yoga" was being referenced in terms of "what it teaches."

    my sense is that if one is going to combine political activism with yoga, then one may have to actually take sides and make good spiritually informed/compassionate/embodied arguments for why certain positions are the ones to support.

    it looks to me like taking a middle-road, non-partisan, we don't want to perpetuate the misperception of us vs them stance seems to open you up to a lot of criticism for perhaps being naive or not taking the serious threats represented by the "them" that is the current crop of tea party religious fundamentalist republicans to quality of life, reproductive freedoms, gay equality, health care, tax fairness, global warming etc seriously.

    i tried to convey in the article that i thought the idealism of not wanting to play into the conflict of us vs them was sincere and well-meaning but perhaps impractical.

    on the shadow stuff , yes absolutely doing the inner work is SO important – but i am pointing out that very often (not necessarily with OTM) the underlying metaphysics that says everything is one and separation is an illusion, it's all perfect, we are all just playing out karma, choosing sides would buy into the dualism, would lead people to think that any feelings you have about the political arena are just shadow projections and that conversely the more you work that stuff out the less you will be triggered by so-called "injustice" – i know you get what i mean, and i know you all don't take this stance. one of my points is that the metaphysical language of the misperception of separation (probably unintentionally) kinda evokes that whole set of related beliefs in relation to the political sphere.

    yes, of course mean politicians are probably wounded, and absolutely we should look deeply into what makes perpetrators do terrible things, and even have compassion for the part of them that was also victimized, i am just not sure any of the RNC delegates are looking for or open to having an experience in their bodies via massage or yoga hat would make them become liberals!

    part of my point is that they have their own very strong religious conviction that are based in the same kinds of emotive appeals as liberal spiritual convictions. they genuinely feel that conservative/christian/tea party values would be better for everyone! so i am not sure we can really reach them – but i 100% get that it is an important question to consider….

    give seane an enormous hug from me and tell her i have no doubt she could beat me in any kind of wrestling match by sheer force of will and charisma. the only problem is i might enjoy it too much.. 😉

    again i really apologize that this felt unfair/inaccurate, i know how that can suck.

  8. […] Yoga, Politics & Transcendental Philosophy: Taking the Election Seriously! […]

  9. This was a really good article and I appreciate both the original interview and Hala's lovely comment above. There is no place, in my humble opinion, well, almost no place, were the "rubber meets the road" like American politics these days and those of us who consider ourselves to be spiritual and informed by the wisdom of the East are often on a razor's edge when we try to reconcile the natural inclinations of our somewhat evolved visions with the realities of political life. I have participated in a couple of "integral" websites where people tried to articulate how an evolutionary person should act in this realm and I am afraid they never really got off the ground. For me personally, the answer is simply to be as engaged in Progressive Politics as I can be. I don't "hate" Republicans, but very honestly I don't want to have much to do with them and I don't think for a second that I can change them. That being said, it sounds like it must have been fun to run a Yoga Center at the RNC and I wish I could have been there! Thanks to all!