You’re in a yoga class. The teacher mentions something about ahimsa and strongly states his opinion about all the damage the US is doing in Afghanistan. Several of the students nod their heads in agreement. One picks up her yoga mat and walks out, never to return again. Her son is a US soldier in Afghanistan.
This type of situation comes up again and again in the yoga world, and it’s the source of much debate. Sure, most teachers think it’s cool to deliver anti-war or Occupy Wall Street rhetoric in class because they believe their students are all liberals who simply tend a bit toward apathy and need a gentle push to vote, protest, or fight against injustice. There may be some truth to this, but it’s not the full picture. Everyone does yoga these days, and that includes conservatives. So, preaching to a liberal base can alienate some students—or worse, turn them off to yoga altogether because they feel like an outcast in class.
But the bigger question is a spiritual one: Do politics and yoga go together? It’s tricky. In yoga, we have the concept of vairagya, or non-attachment. People often understand vairagya to refer to material possessions, people, or thoughts. But it also refers to positions and ideas. If you practice true non-attachment, the whole concept of yoga is apolitical and the whole concept of politics is equally … ayogic.
OK, so yoga teachers should stay clear of political rhetoric. Right? Well, not necessarily. Yoga also teaches about viveka, which is often translated as discernment. True politics—meaning the type of politics that is not about chasing power or fame but about championing causes based on one’s (hopefully noble) values—goes hand in hand with discernment. After all, we are talking here about deciding how and how not to live. This also feeds into the first part of the eight-limbed path: the yamas or restraints that yogis consider to be a part of right living. Are the yamas political, then? Perhaps.
Personally, it’s hard for me to use my yoga practice as a tool for becoming fired up and political when it’s precisely my yoga practice that has opened me up to seeing other points of view and not always believing that I am right. (And I was always right before I started practicing yoga.) This is not to say that I won’t fight for something I believe, but I’m not sure I’d use my practice as a platform for that fight. On the other hand, I do believe, as yogis, we are often so busy knocking at the door of nirvana that our practices become an excuse for not taking part in bettering the social landscape. But, then, as conscious beings, we need to look closely at what ‘bettering’ means, and to whom it applies. In politics, this is sometimes a nuanced equation.
What do you think about yoga as a political platform? If you are a teacher, do you talk politics in class? As a student, do you like or dislike the introduction of political talk before or after asana? Write in and tell us what you think.
I would not discuss controversial social issues in a yoga as an instructor or a student. That is not what the class is for, and I should not do something that would repel students, nor should I use a class setting for my personal agendas.
For me there is no distinction between my yoga practice and another part of my life. Yoga practice should extend to all aspects of my life, and some of that might include being a social activist.
The thing is, it’s easier to put up with that when it’s about “politics”. Where it really gets me is when yoga teachers start pontificating and making intellectual arguments about things that are supposedly abstract–usually, it’s *that* stuff that ends up being more political than overt political claims. When you start saying things like coal-fired power plant owners should just meditate more and everything will be better–you’re full of shit.
This is called arguing out of one’s depth, usually. What it really kind of strikes me as in authoritarian sentiment, this idea that if everyone was just sufficiently yogic, there would be not political problems, therefore, since I am a yoga teacher, I know the way to solve all problems. This is what’s called a ‘naive’ theory, since it obviously hasn’t been thought about with any depth at all.
It plays well to Americans, especially the middle classes, who tend to be anti-political and anti-intellectual.
Strangely enough, yoga in India was understood around the late 19th century and early 20th as being an important tool to overthrow British rule, and to some extent it still is seen as a way to become strong enough to act politically. This is more pronounced among the Buddhist Dalits (the Untouchables) even today, who tend to see “enlightenment” and moral perfection as requiring social and economic democracy. As opposed to Americans, who tend to see enlightenment as being a good reason to drive SUVs to yoga classes.
Can we not respect people’s views even when they are different from our own? I think that the scenario you describe is unfortunate. This mother that really could benefit from yoga was turned off by a good, well-meaning person’s thoughtless comment. Can we not put ourselves in her position and empathize? Before we can effect change we need to meet people where they are. Is that not why we have yoga teachers in rehab hospitals and prisons? Self righteousness gets in the way of meeting people where they are, is never pretty, and I think it misrepresents ahimsa.