Approaching the eve of this critical election, I’ve been bothered by two political stances within the yoga demographic. One is etheric to the point of dissociation: “Whatever change we desire will only come through a change in consciousness.” The other is flaccid and polite to the point of meaninglessness: “Yogis can use the political process to express their values, off the mat.”
Here’s the problem: neither are adequately muscular to the task of preventing a hateful, mendacious plutocrat who evades taxes to tithe to a racist jabberwocky church from seizing the reins of power. My question to the yoga community at large is: why have we not seen a single prominent teacher or yoga organization formally and publicly endorse the Obama-Biden ticket? Do we not want to get our hands too dirty? Are we too busy pretending It’s All Good? Are we even a community at all?
The etheric-dissociative posture
The first stance – the etheric-dissociative – was called out recently by Derek Beres in a critique of a Marianne Williamson’s pseudo-political tweet: “No matter who wins the election, we need a collective leap in consciousness in order to take our country and our world in the direction of peace and love.” Williamson isn’t a yoga person per se, but according to my Facebook feed, she ranks high amongst many yogis’ oft-quoted sources of inspiration, along with the catatonic Eckhart Tolle and the insanely prolific Rumi. Beres does a great job in taking down her vague, apolitical, high-ground cop-out, and demanding that she and other prominent voices stop obscuring the real with the ideal, and show a little pragmatic leadership with regard to what we can do with the votes we have.
I’m afraid Beres wasted a little digital ink on his critique, because Williamson is not actually speaking politically at all. She is appropriating the language of a “political moment” to advance her brand of holier-than-thou dissociation that only people blind to their privilege can afford. Simply replace the phrase “wins the election” with any other verbal clause, and my point is clear:
“No matter who guides our foreign policy, we need a collective leap in consciousness…”
“No matter who wins American Idol, we need a collective leap in consciousness…”
“No matter who controls our food supply, we need a collective leap in consciousness…”
“No matter who walks the dog, we need a collective leap in consciousness…”
Williamson has but one Course-in-Miracles-inflected song, and she’ll sing it in the same key before and after November 6th. There is no room for history when you’re high on the power of now. Her job is not to rally political consciousness, but to maintain her constituents’ dissociation through the emotional onslaught of a very dirty campaign in an increasingly desperate political landscape. Her job is distinctly anti-political, and she’s doing it quite well. Douglas Brooks indirectly describes how she rolls in his recent critique of the nivrtti posture in spirituality:
In contemporary yoga such voices of nivrtti often resort to two strategies of criticism meant to proffer the superiority of taking a “higher” and “spiritual” path that contrasts with the conflicting views and uncertainties of a mundane human reality. The two strategies are covertly (or not) coupled with certain logic of superiority. It goes like this: any effort to express views that might be contentious, disputed, or cause conflict are deemed (1) the work of the “lower” features of an Ego—n.b., the capital “E” works a certain magic meant to express the authority of the claim that Ego=culprit in the equation that affirms (2) silence in the role of our better angel for “spiritual” accomplishment. So, it is implied, to become silent and so serene beyond measurable response is set apart as the higher path of a “true” yogin. The “spiritual” then becomes the apolitical. But even a little more candor reveals that this apolitical spiritual path—revered as superior is more an effort to keep one’s politics private, to silence the process of a more honest conversation precisely because it could complicate or challenge relationships. The next bit of legerdemain is to assert that this unifying view of the “true” nature of reality not only transcends any contentions but also manages to render everyone’s individual opinions equally true so that there is no need to have the challenging conversations in the open. Just go inside and everything will be better.
The flaccid-polite posture
Off the Mat, Into the World has set itself up as a 501(c)3 non-profit, which means it cannot engage in political speech. This is an effective structure for fundraising, and for broadcasting the non-denominational brand of yogic self-regulation and empathy-building tools to the broadest audience. But it also creates a kind of hamstrung speech that wastes a lot of time in stating the obvious and avoiding the necessary conflict of the day. This is painfully clear in OTM’s affiliate programme, YogaVotes, which duplicates the efforts of other non-partisan voting-drive initiatives, like the League of Women Voters, which themselves court a predominantly progressive demographic, but can never call a spade a spade. Watching the intelligent and strong representatives of YogaVotes contort themselves around their deep internal desire to bury Romney under a thousand gallons of Kali’s flaming bile makes me squirm. (Please correct me, YV-ers if this is my projection.)
Do we really need, as YogaVotes claims on its homepage, to “awaken a new demographic of mindful voters—sparking higher voter turnout among the 20 million Americans who practice yoga”? Is yoga culture some ninth-grade classroom sleeping through Civics? Not from what I’ve seen. The vast majority of studio owners and practitioners I know are firmly progressive in their politics. And while progressivism does not translate into votes for Obama without a lot of kicking and screaming, it does translate into a strategic voting stance against regressive chaos. So why, I ask, with our sentiments and our privileged economic status and all of us hanging around the studio water cooler after class worried about reversals in health care coverage and women’s rights and environmental hooliganism, is the most visible political arm of yoga culture this toothless display of bendy niceness?
Be Scofield has done a great job of pointing out how there is nothing inherently progressive about mindfulness culture, and that OTM has accomplished its strongest branding success (providing quickie asana-snacks at both Republican and Democrat conventions) precisely by playing on the political neutrality of transcendent practices. He goes further to show that practicing yoga doesn’t necessarily make one progressive, citing the fact that corporate structures from Goldman Sachs to the U.S. military are using yoga to improve imperial efficiency. And of course we know that yoga culture itself is dotted by some very loud-mouthed libertarians like Lululemon owner Chip Wilson, who spouts as much Ayn Rand nonsense as Paul Ryan does, but whose power, thankfully, is limited to no-chafe gusset-design. Oops – and hiring conditions in his Chinese factories.
I don’t have a survey, but anecdotally it feels like Wilson and Republican flunkies who enjoy backbends are a small and self-absorbed minority in contemporary yoga. I’d say about 20%. Scofield may be right that yoga doesn’t make you a good person, but I’m willing to bet that there are far more genuinely good people than narcissist plutocrats practicing yoga. So I think we can stand a lot more than breathless requests to actually vote. That bar is way too low for what we’re capable of. We need our own Yoga Super PAC, so we can throw the fire with the best of them. The times call for a lot more Arjuna; a lot less Patanjali.
The Editorials of Yoga Culture are Blog Posts: Endorse Now
There is no broader organizing structure for contemporary yoga culture than the blogosphere. Popular yoga blogs have upwards of 50K regular readers each. While it would be great to hear that prominent teachers (let’s say: everyone on the faculty list for the next Yoga Journal Conference) were all actively endorsing an Anyone-but-Romney position, this would hold less democratic sway than if bloggers endorsed in the same way that the print newspapers do.
Here’s my suggested platform, which I think makes sense for the majority of the yoga demographic:
— Given that Mitt Romney’s discernible platform stands to set socio-economic justice, women’s rights, ecological stewardship, scientific research and foreign relations back by several generations, and
— Given that much more of his platform is actually indiscernible due to his pathological lying and opportunism, and
— Given that he is an ordained operative in an exclusionary religious institution rife with the anti-rationalism, anti-environmentalism, and magical thinking that is anathema to the culture of yogic inquiry:
— Incumbent President Obama remains the better and at least known choice, and should be passionately supported by yoga practitioners.
Simple, no? Anyone disagree? I know: I apologize to third-party advocates. Obama is not a perfect choice, given his mediocre record on human rights, upholding international law, and environmental progress. But the immediate legislative impact of a Romney administration is a far heavier price to pay than the ground we lose in reshaping the electoral landscape. Remember Nader, 2000, Florida. It’s not worth it.
I call on all yoga news outlets, magazines, blogs and bloggers, including those who publish and post to this site, to use your soapboxes in these last days to do what we haven’t been brave enough to do so far, caught as we have been between transcendent and politeness reflexes: weave our politics and practice into a bright braid of passion:
1. Please reply below if you intend to endorse.
2. Endorse Obama on your blog or online publication. Two sentences would do it.
3. Provide the link to your endorsement in a follow-up comment to this post.
Make one post, between now and Monday. One brief but firm endorsement for the obvious choice. One single gesture that will mark the beginning of a shift in yoga culture towards greater courage, participation, and the dirty work of integrity.
Matthew Remski is an author, yoga teacher, ayurvedic therapist and educator, co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto, and a new papa. He is a co-contributor to 21st Century Yoga. His new “remix” translation of Patanjali –threads of yoga– is going to print right now. Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body:The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, says of the book: “I don’t know of any reading of the yoga sutras as wildly creative, as impassioned and as earnest as this. it engages Patanjali and the reader in an urgent, electrified conversation that weaves philosophy, symbolist poetry, psychoanalysis and cultural history. There’s a kind of delight and freshness in this book that is very rare in writing on yoga, and especially rare in writing on the yoga sutras. This is a Patanjali for postmoderns, less a translation than a startlingly relevant report on our current condition, through the prism of this ancient text.” Please check out Matthew’s site for more writings on Ayurveda and Yoga.