September 28, 2012

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

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 YogaBrains.org

Read 9 Comments and Reply

Read 9 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

yogijulian  |  Contribution: 6,500