The practice of the yoga of politics (whatever that means), post-Election 2012

Practice (Obama's Hope version)

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.

Kino #yogisforobama tweet

Intent Blog today published “Is Yoga Political?” by Angela Jamison. Here’s a juicy slice of it:

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.

Related links:

>>I rolled out my mat, and then I voted. #Election2012
>>Tuesday morning to-do list: Ekam, practice. Dve, vote!

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Tuesday morning to-do list: Ekam, practice. Dve, vote!

Yoga culture taboo, or sign of the times?

I’m impressed by the amount of in-your-face, get-off-your-asana, get-out-the-vote activism that yogis backing President Barack Obama have been demonstrating of late. Four quick examples out of a ton I could have chosen from:

  • This weekend, when I was in Columbus, Ohio, for a Richard Freeman workshop (more on that rich experience in blog posts later in the week), I ran into a friend and local yoga teacher. Wearing an Obama T-shirt, she told me she would only be staying for the first day because she had to canvass all weekend. And I remembered back to this spring —  when I last saw her during Tim Miller’s workshop at Yoga on High — about how excited she had told me she was for this November visit. Yoga matters, but so do politics — and she chose to hit the pavement rather than step on her mat for a workshop with a premier senior Ashtanga teacher.
  • A yoga studio in California whose e-newsletter I receive sent this short dispatch last week: “In support of our privilege and duty to vote and as part of the YOGA VOTES effort we are offering free classes all day Election Day Tuesday 11/6/2012. Just sign in! Thats it! Dedicate your practice to our future. Thank you!” We know it’s not easy running a financially sustainable yoga studio, so for Willow Glen Yoga in San Jose, Calif., to give up proceeds from a full day of classes is an excellent show of support for the importance of the process.
  • Yogis have also taken to Twitter, my favorite of the social networking platforms. See the trending #yogisforobama hashtag. Kino MacGregor has been tweeting pro-Obama political tweets for at least a few months (that’s just based on what I’ve caught here and there — she tweets so much that there’s no way I could always be on top of it), including reminding folks back when the deadline to register to vote was coming up.
  • The yoga blogophere seems to be heating up recently. Check out “Yogis Stand Up and Endorse Obama” on YogaBrains, take a look at this recap from YogaDork, and read this post from Neal Pollack, who writes, “Yoga doesn’t dictate that you become an apolitical idiot. You need to use discernment and intelligence and follow the right political path based on your most deeply-held values.”

Viveka — this is all a form of the discernment that we cultivate while on the mat, right? Why would we cultivate these skills through our yoga practice and then not exercise our right to act based on them?

Normally, this is the kind of post I would avoid writing. I have one foot in the political world through my public relations job, and I try to keep politics out of this space. But . . . well, I don’t think I’ll be sleeping too soundly tonight. Despite Nate Silver’s statistics-based optimism — currently, that Obama has a high chance of winning — it’s close enough, and I am concerned enough, and the stakes are high enough, that I decided I should.

>>LINK: Have you seen the What the Fuck Has Obama Done So Far website? 

Not 100 percent happy with Obama? Angela Jamison addresses that:

We are evolving politically. The expansion of the rights of citizenship is inevitable; the expansion of the definition of the human scope of responsibility (from tribe, to nation, to species, to planet) is inevitable. Unless we stall, take too many steps backwards, and thus all kill ourselves first. Obama is about 50 years ahead of Romney when it comes to the political enlightenment process. So you are another 50 years ahead of Obama. Duh. We need you to be. Don’t hate him for not expressing your exact values. If he did, he would never have gotten this far.

I work in Michigan’s state capital, and a fair amount of my work intersects with politics (not to mention that a few years ago, I worked in the belly of the political beast itself). I’ve seen how hard it is for any legislation to get passed. Think everyone wants to protect puppies? Think again. Unless you’ve worked in the political system, you have no idea how many deals have to be cut for anything — even the seemingly most mundane or obvious things — to move forward. The fact that Obama was able to get the Affordable Care Act (ACA) through still sort of astounds me.

>>LINK: Your Election Eve moment of zen: Replay of the infamous Mitt Romney 47 percent video

Yes, there are a lot of smoke and mirrors in our two-party political system. Yes, there’s a ton of BS. Yes, there’s a ton of power-grabbing and power-hungry people. But no, it is not the case that who is in elected office doesn’t matter. No, it’s not true that in the end, everyone wants the same thing and all will be well, which I’ve been hearing a few yogis say in recent weeks. As anyone who has been denied health insurance because of a pre-existing condition — an injustice the ACA, which critics love to call Obamacare, has dealt with — can tell you, that’s not the case.

In the first verse of the Ashtanga closing prayer, we say:

“May all be well with mankind.
May the leaders of the earth protect in every way by keeping to the right path.”

Tomorrow in the United States, we have a chance to do more than channel good vibrations about responsible leaders.

(Photo credit: Obama T-shirt for sale on Cafe Press.)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.