I forced myself to go to bed around 1:30 a.m. last night, after Mitt Romney made his concession speech. I desperately wanted to wait up for Barack Obama to give his speech, but I knew that would have definitely killed my chances of making the 60-minute drive to my shala for morning practice.
Stumbling around in the pre-dawn dark of my closest, I thought about wearing my Ashtanga Yoga Confluence Pattabhi Jois shirt tee done in the iconic style of the famous Obama “Hope” image but decided against it, given how charged this election was. Plus, I thought, better to continue the conversation by blogging the image instead.
There has hardly been a unified front among “the yoga community” about the incredibly high-stakes #Election2012 — but I think the conversation that has been taking place has been vocal and, as Matthew Remski called for, “muscular.” It goes without saying that yogis — especially the #yogisforobama crowd — continued to share their feelings today about the election.
I’m sympathetic to the apolitical argument. It goes like this: Yoga is in the transcendence business. Think like the Cosmos. The rest is and always has been small potatoes.
Now, there is a growing, healthy tendency for critical-minded yoga people to get very pissed off at transcendence teachings. We counter with the message of immanence: Here! Here! Now! Now! Relationships, Physicality, Food, Form! Fine, fine. But now that immanence is having its day in western yoga, let’s not throw the transcendence out with the bathwater. Or, phrased even worse: you can transcend your cake and eat it too.
To the question of whether yoga is historically apolitical, I can only speak casually to my own lineage. I’m a student of the direct students of Pattabhi Jois; and for extra edification and clarity of transmission I study with senior a senior Iyengar teacher, a senior student of TKV Desikachar, and others whose line goes directly to Krishnamacharya. Nobody knows what yoga is. But I do at least know my family line; I teach the way my teachers in the tradition of Pattabhi Jois taught me to teach, and only because they support me in doing so. Lineage gives me a sense of history and accountability, and helps me answer hard questions like: Is yoga political?
WWKD? WWSKPJD? Q.E.D.
Yes, it’s apparently political. I’ll start from the root. The mula guru of my lineage was outspoken and crazy progressive in his politics. This singular man, T. Krishnamacharya, took radical political initiatives. If he hadn’t, would we even be here?
Krishnamacharya went to work for Wodeyar, a prince who in the early 1900 was in some ways more politically enlightened than Mitt Romney (Wodeyar championed public health and, if I am not mistaken, was one of the first Indian politicians to support some form of birth control for women). He pushed the envelope of the teachable to encompass women and foreigners, and wrote the radical book Yoga Makaranda in a passionate effort to legitimate yoga practice (previously considered punk ass nonsense) among everyday people. Word is people said he was crazy.
From there I only know about my own branch of the lineage – that of Pattabhi Jois. What I know is mostly conversational – part of the oral tradition I have recieved – but what does seem clear is that SKPJ took Krishnamacharya’s envelope and expanded it further in some places. (Some say SKPJ convinced his guru to expand that envelope in the first place.) More foreigners and more westerners were given the teachings, and eventually he broke with his rumored refusal to teach Muslims (to this day, Mysore city is extremely segregated, and there is significant tension and oppression between Hindu majority and the large population of Muslims). In time, and especially with my teacher Sharath’s leadership of the ashtanga yoga lineage, more women would be empowered as senior teachers.
At this moment, the environment is coming online in my lineage as a zone of political responsibility. The week before last, Sharath spoke to students gathered in Mysore, saying that instead of having a third child, he will plant a tree. He told the students to plant trees and take care of the environment, and said that this is part of yoga.
The popular argument that yoga is apolitical comes not from an understanding of modern yoga history, but from a mistaken grafting of “yoga” on to the definition of “business.” BUSINESS is apolitical. Politics in America are one part culture wars and three parts class warfare. And for godsakes if you want to make money, you do not participate in class warfare.
Over at YogaBrains, Derek Beres wrote today:
At YogaBrains we had our most trafficked weekend in our young history after posting a series of articles endorsing Obama. While we received push back on various blogs and comment sections about bringing politics into the yoga community, we heard more positive feedback than not. In my practice, the heart of yoga is not about debating what some text written 2,500 years ago by someone I will never meet from a culture I will never be able to properly imagine ‘means.’ I prefer to stick to the basics: unity, discriminative thinking, self-reflection, non-harming and -stealing. My ‘practice’ is defined by the life I live, not the 90 minutes I spend a few times a week exercising. This, inevitably, means engagement with the culture I live in.
So while I was thrilled to see so much activity regarding politics over the last few weeks, I can only say: Don’t stop now. Politics is not only an election-time process. Lately I’ve seen otherwise intelligent people argue that Obama did not push through a number of issues, without stopping to consider that we just experienced the most divided Congress in our nation’s history, which put forth a record number of filibusters. The GOP banked on people not paying attention, and in many ways, they achieved that goal without trying much. That allowed them to craft new arguments over the last two months with little concern, knowing that the majority of Americans were asleep at the wheel.
If it is to be us who helps define the route our country is taking, we must stay engaged and involved politically. Put aside your time for meditation, breathing and postures; just don’t spend it all there. That calm force you cultivate must be put into action in the country that helped create an environment for you to freely practice your spiritual ambitions.
Pattabhi Jois’ 99 percent practice, 1 percent theory — does it/should it apply to politics as well as yoga? All I know is that until this week, I would never have never considered sharing my political allegiances in a presidential race on my yoga blog. (Part of that is that I was trained as a mainstream journalist in the old-school tradition that dictates that you avoid airing your personal political views at all costs — you don’t ever so much as sign a petition). But as I continued to step on my mat six days a week, as I read more and more of what thoughtful yogis were saying, and as I reflected about why I backed the candidate I backed, it seemed more yogic — not less — to share my concerns about the direction one of the candidates would lead this country down should he be elected.
Our political leaders hold tremendous responsibilities. As citizens and yogis, so do we.
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