A friend tagged me on a Facebook post last week. The author was wondering if local yoga teachers were talking about the election in their classes – particularly wondering if local yoga teachers were using their classes to campaign against the Harper Conservatives.
In my imagination… downward dog at the barricades, waving flags of resistance in mountain pose as we stand on guard for trees.
What do we want?
When do we want it?
The eternal now
Then I thought about it some more. Would a yoga teacher lose students if they started talking about Bill C-51, the narc on your Muslim neighbor hotline, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, or the TPP trade agreement in their classes? Would it offend conservative students? Would it bore apolitical students? Or would it, like almost everything else yoga teachers say in their classes, swirl around in the minds of students for a short while before floating off into mind-space in the depths of relaxation?
Personally, I suspect most of my students would simply nod and agree and that there would be no noticeable change in the size of my classes. So does that mean I am officially on the yogic campaign trail?
I will not be talking about the election in my classes.
I am a socialist. I will, most likely, vote for the NDP not because I am aligned with their politics but because their candidate seems most likely to unseat the Conservatives in my riding. But that will not be finding its way into my classes.
If a student is curious about how I plan to vote, I will happily share that information with them just as I have shared it with you. But I will not attempt to persuade anybody to vote any particular way.
This is not a “yoga is not political” statement. That statement is not only historically inaccurate but pretends that spirituality and health can be divorced or separated from the social and economic contexts in which they are encountered. No such separation is possible, nor has it been possible in the past.
For centuries yogis have maintained close relationships with the ruling class. Yogis were well known for influencing social policy through sometimes nefarious dealings and trickery. The royal family in Mysore employed the originator of contemporary postural yoga, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. It is well known that BKS Iyengar was a supporter of the BJP – a nationalist political party in India. Swami Sivananda received a great deal of patronage from the Shiv Sena, another right wing Indian political party. And today one of the biggest supporters of the Modi government is the famous televangeliyogi (I just invented a word!) Baba Ramdev.
Yoga is political
One might imagine yoga as a form of activism that functions quite differently than typical political activism. Yoga class should be a welcoming, inclusive environment where a (hopefully) diverse group of people can enjoy the simple pleasures of breath, movement, and stillness. As we melt into the bliss of the present moment, it dawns on us that we are permeable. We are not separate from our environment. Our minds are as porous as our skin.
It begins as a simple realization. What we do to others we are doing to ourselves. What we do to our environment we are doing to ourselves. It is a slow transformative process that requires patience and understanding. We start to observe our thoughts and consider why we think the way we think. We realize that the way we move and think is the product of years of conditioning.
Autonomy as an Essential Yogic Virtue
Yoga changes how we think of our world and ourselves. It doesn’t change in a predictable way. It doesn’t change in such a way that it reflects the thinking of the teacher. It is entirely organic, spontaneous, and self-directed.
The autonomy of the student should be the goal of the teacher. Yoga teachers should be teaching themselves right out of a job. We create some space in which students investigate their patterns and make decisions about if, how, when, and to what extent they should make conscious changes to those patterns. Any changes that take place happen autonomously.
Students of yoga very often begin with some simple stretching and relaxation and end up making significant life changes. But those life changes need to arise as a result of a complex, contemplative and intimate process – not because somebody told you so.
A yoga teacher’s primary responsibility is to create a safe and intelligent environment in which students can explore the bodymind in search of the imagined boundaries that delineate this thing called a “me” in relationship to “the outside.” That is an inherently social, and therefore political process.
Selfish Empathy and Expanding our Circle of Care
If you believe that who you are is contained within and defined by your skin, your selfishness leads you to benefit yourself at the expense of others. There is only so much pizza to go around, you know? Watching me eat pizza only means less pizza for you.
If you believe that who you are is contained within and defined by your family, your selfishness leads to you protect your family at the expense of others. The same could be said of any identifying your self with a particular nationality or with a particular class. But what happens when you start to experience your “self” as part of an integrated whole that include all life on the planet?
I believe yoga is revolutionary because it can cause a shift in identity. Especially when integrated with a regular meditation practice, yoga can lead to a massively expanded notion of who we are. As Alan Watts said, we do not come into this world – we come out of it. Like waves on the surface on the ocean or blades of grass on the lawn, we literally part of the world. This is not a new insight. As early as the Chandogya Upanishad (approximately 2500 years ago!) seers have been saying this very thing.
tat tvam asi – you are that
I am not without cynicism. I realize that yoga can also deepen narcissistic delusions and act as a tonic to temporary relieve the guilt and tension of first world living so that we can make more bearable a lifestyle that we all know is unsustainable. But I practice and teach with optimism. I am optimistic that we can change ourselves for the better and as a result co-create a world that is based on compassion, mutual aid, solidarity, and understanding.