“For me, yoga and politics are intimately connected.” – Pam Hardy
The last election was a wake-up call to many American citizens, breaking the glass walls of the echo chambers we didn’t know we were living in. It has also become a polarising and aggressively divisive time. Social media wars are rampant, we no longer know where fake news begins and ends, and public outcry is pervading seemingly every event, from the Oscars to the Super Bowl.
What does yoga have to do with politics, and why should we care? Kerri Kelly, founder of CTZNWELL, an organisation that advocates for the universal need for wellness, finds her yoga practice at the core of her political activism. “Yoga means ‘to yoke, or come together.’ It affirms our interconnection and interdependence with each other,” she says. “Many of us come to yoga seeking self-sufficiency and freedom. We quickly realise that our liberation is bound with the world around us. This liberation is and must be all-inclusive: joy and pain, shadow and light, individual and collective. When we can hold space for our fear and brokenness and wholeness, then we can hold space for the complex and intersectional reality that we exist in. We are not separate from the suffering of our parents, families, neighbours, in the same way that we are not separate from our planet that we live upon. When we choose to ‘live’ interdependence, we see that the personal is political.” Our personal liberation is yoked to the incarcerated black man, the alt-right conservative, the single mom, the CEO, the immigrants, the children.
For the survival of a democratic republic, we must become engaged—it is not only a civic, but also an ethical duty intimately connected with a yoga practice rooted in philosophy. Our Founding Fathers set out to create a government separate from and different than the British establishment they were leaving. This experiment, the United States of America, has endured many obstacles, trials, and tribulations in these 241 years. Its foundation is rooted in active civic participation, and current technology makes this both easier and more obtuse than ever before.
Amanda Stuermer, certified yoga teacher and founder of Muse, a Women’s Conference, says, “The world feels so divisive right now, so how can we start having conversations around value? Homes are political because of health care. Schools are becoming a political issue. We have tried to keep politics separate, but we have to say they are integrated. So how can we become more political in a way that is less divided, more conscious and mindful, and integrates the learning that we are given through the yoga practices?”
I practice ahimsa by engaging in respectful conversation, active listening, and asking questions, rather than forcing someone else to have the opinion that I think they should have. Yelling at someone or getting into a Facebook rant is unlikely to change anyone else’s mind on a hot topic, but discovering what is beneath their beliefs, just might...
Pam Hardy, yoga philosopher and environmental lawyer, says, “For me, yoga and politics are intimately connected. When I’m not teaching yoga, my job is to be an environmental advocate; it’s very political. I literally negotiate face-to-face with elected officials, the timber industry, and the Forest Service to make sure we get the most sustainable logging projects possible. I credit a lot of my success to my yoga practice. Yoga keeps me clear, centred, and balanced, even when I’m in a difficult or sometimes hostile situation. It also allows me to have a deeper understanding of other people that I’m negotiating with. Instead of seeing them as caricatures or stereotypes, I am able to be real with them. That allows us to explore solutions that are way more creative that the normal positioning.”
The first tenet of The Yoga Sutras explores ahimsa, or non-harming. Ahimsa is also at the heart of Gandhi’s nonviolent civil disobedience that ended the British occupation in India. His commitment helped end a form of suffering of an entire nation. The United States is only one country in the world, and still a leader in culture, economics, and power. But even so, we struggle to keep many of our most vulnerable from harm. For example, we continue to climb higher and higher in rates of maternal death, diabetes, and obesity. We can choose to see, affirm, and honour our intrinsic power and influence to help each other, or not.
Stuermer offers, “The purpose of practicing on the mat is to be able to be more conscious in the real world, and what we practice on our mat is what we practice in the real world. We have the responsibility to be out in the world in a more engaged, conscious way. The future is in conscious activism versus reactivism, being aware of personal privilege and bias, then trying to see the world through others. Reactivism is a natural tendency, but to be able to be self-reflective and practice non-reaction, rather than pushing against the problem, and instead standing for something. Then you are standing for what you want to see in the world.”
As many a yogi will rock out to MC Yogi’s “Be The Change You Want to See,” it is essential to let these words seep in and inspire each one of us to see our intrinsic privilege and our own potential empowerment. If you read for leisure, are able to take a group yoga class at a studio, or have attended a yoga and music festival, you are among the privileged. Recognize this first and foremost. Now, choose what you will do with the power of your privilege. Hardy recommends practicing daily and listening closely. “Watch out for fear that will try to blind you to yourself,” she says. “Listen for what makes your heart come alive, and gives you the sense that you’ve done the right thing—even if it’s scary.”
Taking yoga off your mat
- Take care of yourself first and foremost.
- Eat good whole foods, drink plenty of water, do yoga, meditate, and get fresh air.
- What self-care rituals can you commit to that feed your strong sense of centre?
- Commit and contemplate Warrior 1, 2, and 3: During these poses ask yourself who and what do you fight for?
- What inspires your ferocious loving-kindness? How can you stand up for what you believe in with compassion?
- Find a teacher to practice Tonglin, the Buddhist contemplation of loving-kindness.
- Join or start a Mindful Book Club. Find a supportive community to read these books in community. We need each other now more than ever. Kerri Kelly recommends these titles:
- Healing the Soul of America by Marianne Williamson
- The Emperor Has No Clothes by Tema Okun
- Radical Dharma by Angel Kyodo Williams
- Yoga Ph.D. by Carol Horton
- Initiate talking circles and active listening. Take the practice of nonviolent communication from interpersonal to group situations with those who may disagree with you or your point of view.
- When watching or reading the news, ascertain where your source is getting their facts and check those sources for accuracy and authenticity
Get to know your politicians
- Monthly : Go to a local town hall meeting. Listen to the issues and contribute your voice.
- Weekly : Write letters.
- Daily : Call your representatives. It really works!
Together, we can be the change we seek in the world.