Yoga and Social Justice: a Prickly Dualism
Last week my friend Roseanne Harvey over at It’s All Yoga Baby emailed me in preparation for the excellent survey she just published:
remember when we were all fired up about yoga and politics, and in 2012 you and i both endorsed barack obama and encouraged yoga practitioners to vote in the US election?
and now it’s 2015, a canadian election looms, just as urgent, and none of us are rallying the canadian yoga public to get out there and vote, nor are we endorsing anybody…
anyway, i’ve been thinking about this and have started working on a story. are canadian practitioners even more apolitical than american, or are we too quiet, or does nobody care about the tenuous connection between yoga and politics anymore?
Yeah, I remember, Roseanne. And like my Anybody But Romney position in 2012, I’m pursuing an Anybody But Conservative strategy this time around, in the desperate interest of harm-reduction.
For the unfamiliar: the Conservative government of Stephen Harper is an oil-guzzling WASPy mafia of racist, misogynistic, mean-spirited, venal, narcissistic, fear-mongering, anti-intellectual, self-certain gluttons. His agenda is an ashen alchemy of apathy and aggression, droning with the assurance of someone who couldn’t change course if he wanted to, because the learning part of him is dead.
His lowest trick so far — if these 70 abuses of power aren’t enough — is to promise his paranoid constituency a dedicated police hotline for snitching on Muslims. But wait — it gets worse. Now we learn that his office interfered in the processing of Syrian refugee claims to block Sunni and Shia families in favour of Christians. Within minutes of pressing publish on this thing, another sickening revelation will surface. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m watching the news or a livestream of metastatic cancer.
I’ve got an orange sign in the front yard. (For readers beyond Canada: it’s for the once-leftish-now-depressingly-cutting-to-centre-right NDP, who I grew up supporting in a staunchly pro-labour household.) But the Conservative candidate has no chance here, and if the Liberal candidate appears to surge, my nuance may be to vote Green to help them keep a hand in the mix. For me, environmental sanity is the most efficient framework for supporting social justice, because in the end it will demand the dismantling of capitalism. Everything else is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. For a decade, Harper has been skipping the chairs and simply throwing the sick, poor, queer, female, First Nations and other non-white people overboard.
Back to Roseanne’s larger question:
So far I’ve been ambivalent about using my yoga platform to talk about electoral politics. Time and interpersonal constraints play a role. I have a limit for playing appease-a-troll on comment threads. I’m toiling over a book and travelling a lot for work. I’m only teaching at two studios in town at this point, which means I don’t have as much in-person contact as I once did. Yoga Community Toronto has been little but a spam-magnet Facebook page since our friend Jenna died, and since the competitive pace of yoga-gentrification diffused the yearning for or perhaps even possibility for community beyond the studio level.
I’m also a new parent, so a lot of politics happens in the kitchen, or on the street, or with the Lorax, or in the few minutes before falling into sleep when I murmur “What’s the most important thing to do?” and I hear some liminal answer I rarely remember. This much is sure: I’d have more time to door-knock for the Greens than I’d have to argue for why yoga people should vote progressive, or for why yoga should make people more progressive. I tied myself in knots arguing both of those positions in 2012 in a daze of hope and confusion.
Seeking the Illusory Yoga Vote
Back then, a bunch of us thought it would be the yoga thing to stop coyly hiding our progressive aspirations behind “getting out the vote” efforts. We wanted to provoke through endorsement. We argued on the basis of ethics derived from practice that it was an absolute no-brainer to vote for Obama over Romney, who believes the planet is his disposable space station en route to Kolob.
I don’t regret it. But now I think it was mostly noise. First, it bolstered the confirmation bias of our self-selected online choir. There was some validating back-slapping: “Of course! Great idea! Rally the yoga vote for the good guys!” However, it also spotlighted that slice of the yoga sector infected by self-immolating leftist idealism, hell-bent on pitching a false equivalency between the two candidates and insisting that the zero-sum pious choice was Green or non-dualistic abstention.
Third – it drew protests about boundaries. Many compared their yoga mat to Rumi’s field – beyond good and evil – and said that practice was effective for them precisely because it gave respite from a world of conflict. They were mostly fine with being encouraged to vote, but not with the notion of engaging with policy issues.
I’m ashamed of my response to this one. I brushed it off as a cop-out, which was a real empathy fail for someone working as a yoga therapist. Was I really willing to push an oppositional agenda into the world of yoga education? Practice and ethics and policy are inseparable to me, but doesn’t negotiating them simultaneously devitalize each?
I also didn’t give much thought to the impact my writing activism might have on my classroom or consultation environment. Who might feel excluded or intimidated, and who might feel drawn in by an even thicker transference than usual? I was definitely short on the maturity shown by Regina’s Colin Hall in this elegant post. It helps to get out of the way when you’re serving people, and I’m still learning how to do that. Maybe I should have been a socialist from the Prairies.
But it was the fourth impact of our endorsement campaign that surprised a lot of us. Our appeal uncovered deep currents of unexamined and unabashed white and gender privilege in Yogaland, as well as an unexpected amount of fiscal conservatism and libertarianism that are allergic to collectivist goals.
Overall, I can’t imagine that our endorsements influenced a single voter. But that fourth revelation has turned out to be a good kick in the old zafu. You see, I believe some of us were operating under a seemingly benign illusion that can only serve to distract or exhaust those who hold it. This would be the belief that yoga or meditation should naturally lead towards particular ideals of progressivism and pragmatic strategy. How could it not be, some of us wondered, that the tender realizations of movement and breath available on the mat wouldn’t spontaneously turn everyone into champions of community and social welfare? What do these oneness sensations do, if they don’t manifest oneness? It’s a tricky belief: innocent in its wishfulness, maybe a little smug in its projections, and possibly regressive in its effects.
For now I’ll call this belief the Oneness Mode, or OM for short. It derives from the single biggest category mistake in Yogaland I know of: the confusion of internal practices and states with external methods and realities. It provides the language of pop-Tantra. Oneness experiences on the cushion are thought to imply or invoke or encourage oneness realities in the world. People under the spell of OM imagine that their personal epiphanies on the mat have universal value or meaning. If they’re charismatic to begin with, they may be drawn to evangelize their discoveries into new brands or lineages, like John Friend magnifying and marketing the particular delights of his own body into a scheme of Universal Principles. If they are progressive to begin with, they may feel they’ve found a common, psychosomatic ground for ethics and behaviour rooted in justice. Not only is this untrue, it is a sentiment that is far too easily diluted through commodification to be of use.
The Scofield Insight: Spirituality Provides No Clear Political Guidance
The efforts of Be Scofield have been pivotal in relieving me of the OM. In piles of articles and threads over the past several years, she has tirelessly deconstructed the “of course yoga practice leads to moral action” bromide with which so many seem to comfort or excuse themselves.
If you haven’t heard it yet, the core of her argument is that there is no such thing as a spiritual or religious practice that grants realizations that lead to predictable policy objectives. She lays out the evidence plainly. Zen monks and asana yogis alike can meditate and stretch their way into fascist fervors. MBSR teachers can very compassionately help Amazon executives become more serenely rapacious. With meditation, vets recover from PTSD, and Navy Seals improve their shooting. We shouldn’t be surprised if the Volkswagon plan to hack diesel emissions testing was hatched in some deep contemplative equipoise.
If Patanjali provided a clear morality that didn’t need to be interpreted through the political values of his readers, practitioners who hold the Sutras as biblical wouldn’t be divided on vegetarianism or the reality of white privilege, but they are. Gandhi took the Bhagavad Gita as his source of inspiration for political action. So did his assassin, Nathuram Godse.
If you hold the on-the-ground gifts of asana or meditation to be contingent upon an interpretation of ancient Buddhist or yoga ethics that just happens to align with your Euro-American progressivism, you may be simply sacralizing ideas you already hold dear and learned elsewhere. You may be veneering them onto the same orientalized vagueness that people you can’t stand will interpret to support their own ideas, which you’ll find obnoxious.* You can say that those people don’t understand true Buddhism or yoga, but then they’ll say the same thing about you. It doesn’t really matter who’s right. What matters is that progressives can easily waste time on two canards: 1) the unlikelihood that Iron Age or medieval South Asian ethics harmonize in any way with modern left-coast politics, and 2) that the shifting sands of spiritual sentiment — where oneness, empathy, and salvation mean different things to different people — are stable enough to support political movements.
What is this drive to use the Buddha to validate your politics, when you can cite Noam Chomsky or bell hooks, who actually taught them to you, whether directly or via osmosis? The cynic might say it’s marketing, but it could also be something more benign: the delight and love of meditative oneness states is easy to project into the fantasy of a larger resolution. Peak moments provoke the OM, which says Oh, it all makes sense, it’s all been worked out, we’re all in this together. But then you have to go out and do stuff and it’s not so easy. That’s why we keep practicing, says the teacher who fails to distinguish the private oneness experience from the OM.
The gathering realization that our moments of internal harmony teach us neither where we are blind to our neighbours nor actual strategies for how to act justly can be hard to bear. And the idea that our gurus hold specialized knowledge of internal worlds to the exclusion of the interpersonal worlds where most our stuff actually happens can come as a shock. But let’s be honest: most of them gained the skills we laud them for by assiduously ignoring the world around them. We pursue them into their radiant solitude, because we crave our own. Anandamurti seems a notable exception to the apolitical rule. He considered his Marxist-inspired Progressive Utilization Theory to be integral to his spiritual synthesis of Vedic and Tantric streams. He would have endorsed our endorsement scheme, but nobody beyond our circle would have cared. Ananda Marga has had very little impact upon the modern postural movement.
Introspective experience can feel individually liberating, and this definitely fills an aching void. But it’s only ultimately important if the individual is placed at the top of the value-chain. The Scofield Insight shows that evangelizing a private experience must always be mediated by the dominant politics it is embedded within and blindered to, what with all those eyes focused on all those tips of noses. This is why, for example, mainly-white yoga and meditation communities can be surprised when they’re told that they are not only mainly-white, but may in fact be perpetuating white privilege. Didn’t all of that lovingkindness meditation we did prove to us that we’re all equal? Sure: amongst ourselves and in our own heads. The OM is powerful. But it takes actual political training to articulate an actual political stance. As one of America’s original yogi-feminists Diana Alstad said, only a little flippantly, over dinner one night: “Why should I be interested in Patanjali? Wasn’t he writing before feminism?”
Neoliberalism and the OM
Suggesting that the oneness or empathy-enhancing experiences of yoga and meditation naturally lead to progressive activism, as I used to, leads to the Scofield Dead End. Oneness is a private therapeutic that the OM presents as strategy.
But I think there’s a deeper problem: the sentimentality of the OM, when blended with the fetish of personal evolution, is also integral to neoliberal propaganda.
It’s hard to define neoliberalism, but for here we can say it’s the loose religion that gives capitalism a unitary and moralistic veneer. It situates the individual at the centre of reality-generation, responsibility, and fulfillment. It is practiced through self-surveillance and self-improvement rituals that become compulsory for dignity if not survival, as consumerist alienation rises and notions of social welfare wither away. It commodifies and markets the OM through the assurance that we’re all equal and everything’s all right.
Beyond the world of theory, we can call it the Lulu Effect. It’s everywhere, from the Body Shop to Whole Foods to the Eat, Pray, Spend genre of priv-lit. Through self-help products and narratives, the Lulu Effect provokes and packages emotions of oneness and connectivity as instrumental to a virtuous citizenship, in which feeling good and doing good are yoked through the buying of products that are conceived of as moral because the consumer’s intention has been elevated. None of this is hidden. It is as open and obvious as people doing asana and meditating in stores that sell clothes sewn together in sweatshops.
Post-Sixties non-traditional spirituality in Euro-America, characterized by the OM and adept at making non-dogmatic freedom its primary dogma, has always been married to and extended by the broader thrust of free-market capitalist globalization. Euro-American yoga culture has been swept along for the ride. The inequality of the system doles out cash or credit, allowing a few people to fly to exotic locales to consume self-development. The entrepreneurs sit in business class, inventing alternative products to sell to those who long for continual personality upgrading. Mats are unrolled, drums are circled, massage oils are heated, breakthroughs are memoired, and people are transformed into their next versions of authenticity. All of it happens in tandem with the erosion of the commons, a steady climb of global wealth disparity, and a rising tide of environmental terror. Feeling good – which unlike “being equal”, is something we are assured we’re entitled to – can cast a deep shadow of hidden costs.
The elision of yoga and meditation-derived oneness feelings with visions of world unity resonates with the unconscious mandate of the neoliberal self, who is taught to believe that private transcendence is crucial for validating the market freedom that will liberate everyone and solve every problem. Yoga is stilling the fluctuations of the mind. The body is my temple; asanas are my prayers. Just do it. Be the change you want to see. Yoga is skill in action. What’s your excuse? Follow your bliss. Practice and all is coming. Lean in. It all seems to swirl together in a taijitu of triumphalism and anxiety. The extreme athlete in the running shoe commercial expressing her individuation from mediocrity by summiting a lonely mesa at dawn is interchangeable with the mountaintop meditator. Both wear luon, and both express passions, but neither can tell us anything about equality or justice, except that it comes to those who can pay for it.
Yoga Belongs to Alternative, Not Oppositional, Culture
If I haven’t made it clear, none of my analysis here is meant to devalue the personal work on the mat that we know is occurring all over the place. My aim is to trouble the explicit and implicit claims made by hopeful and stretchy progressives, unreflexive yogapreneurs, and neoliberal marketers about how our work on the mat translates into social good. The Scofield Insight makes it generally clear that such claims are deeply flawed. I’ve gone on to show that the claims are further diluted by their overlap with neoliberalism. I’ll conclude the analysis for now by describing why Euro-American yoga, even if the OM were dispelled, is not a grounded platform for concrete political activism.
When its private experiences are bootstrapped into the pubic sphere, Euro-American yoga expresses itself within alternative culture, not oppositional culture.** In alternative culture, individuals invest in personal learning to cut unique pathways towards the satisfaction of personal destinies. In oppositional culture, people are willing to die in group actions towards shared material goals like abolition, voting rights, and labour or environmental justice. By contrast, alternative culture emphasizes inner development, the performance of emotional authenticity, and the belief that psychological change is either more desirable than political change, or that it makes political change irrelevant. Additionally, the journey of alternative personal growth is consumerist: value accumulates through the manufacture and purchasing of a series of ascendingly virtuous choices, from organic food to teacher trainings to spiritual makeovers, each successively priced almost out of reach.
In its global consumerist and alternative iteration, yoga culture has always been more about trying something else than about refusing to play the game. Evolved to be loose, receptive, non-judgmental, innovative, and extended through mechanisms of personal choice, Euro-American yoga culture seems both structurally and philosophically allergic to strategies of opposition. This stands in stark contrast to its Indian roots, in which asana practice provided, in part, a body-politic ritual of anti-colonial resurrection. In Euro-America, the fact that yoga activism around election time must limit itself to getting out the vote is the perfect example of how the culture is allowed to value the process of choosing, but cannot risk passing judgment on the value of particular choices. Doing so would compromise the integrity of the personal journey.
Several brave people and organizations have been able to transparently mobilize yoga resources in self-reflexive, justice-oriented ways. Scofield’s Decolonizing Yoga and the YBIC do great work towards making yoga culture more just. Off the Mat has taken mature strides towards developing social justice curricula for teachers and trainers. Among outreach efforts, the Yoga Services Council works tirelessly to make the therapeutics of yoga and mindfulness accessible beyond the borders of Yogaland, especially schools. I’d presume to say that all of these activists know that they’re doing far more than offering alternatives, even if they have to couch their initiatives in the language of “alternative” to let them breathe. They are forwarding visions that oppose dominant paradigms.
I’ll continue to admire and support these friends vigorously, and I’ll always love working with my colleagues who marshal yoga infrastructure towards justice. But I’m aware that they constitute a statistically tiny slice of the broader culture, where pro-social initiatives are usually limited to charitable efforts that indulge white saviour narratives or voluntourism, or inspirational gestures like Swami Vishnudevananda flying his Piper Apache over the Berlin Wall, or group actions like malas of sun salutations for world peace or mass meditations at the barricades of G20 riots. Themed group practices can be profoundly moving for participants, and they carve out an interesting space between introspection and public discourse. But as spectacles of alternatives, they can barter strategy for the optics of an above-the-battleground dream. The messaging is often generalized to a content-poor “can’t we all get along?” theme, and it’s always dutifully self-reflective: “change begins within.”
Are we always so sure it does? One thing seems clear: world leaders and those who throw bricks at their motorcades are too busy to notice your inner changes or care about how well you’re holding space for everybody’s process. They’re at war. Stephen Harper, Tony Abbot, and David Cameron are quite happy that at least a few of you have the good sense to sit there quietly, in the perfect form of peaceful protest. They know you’ll be fine, because who exactly has the time and money to sit quietly? Sitting in half-lotus at the periphery of chaos performs an alternative rooted in the same privilege the brick-throwers are opposing. It is a choice, and the majority of choices like this are possible through the support of time and money. The powerful can interpret the ability to choose meditation over brick-throwing as proof that consumers of self-help can make virtuous choices that do not disrupt the machine. Oppositional culture is about changing the power dynamics that allow some people to have choices because others are coerced.
A Grab-Bag Bullet-Summary So Far
- Communists, fascists, neoliberals, racists, hedonists, radical environmentalists, hipsters, Tea Partiers, organic farmers, and religious fundamentalists can all enjoy the realizations of yoga and meditation, and claim those realizations support their politics, or aversion to politics. Ergo, there is no coherent yoga vote to be mobilized.
- Question: would you participate in “Get out the yoga vote” campaigns if it were clear that the general yoga demographic is no more progressive (or perhaps less progressive) than any other?
- Often, arguing over what “yoga really is” is a good way to conceal political agendas. Debaters want their politics to sound more noble through frameworks of ultimate truth.
- The phrase “yoga community” often sounds like it’s pointing at a collectivist ideal. But if that ideal remains undefined, what becomes of all the emotional capital it churns up?
- Believing that yoga practice necessarily leads to progressivism is naïve.
- Wanting people in your classes or circles to be as progressive as you are is a juicy countertransference that may not make for inclusive space, despite every stated aspiration to be “inclusive.”
- Euro-American yoga culture is inextricable from alternative culture. Alternative culture is both innovative and inextricable from consumerism. Consumerism is the id-function of capitalism. Neoliberalism is the religion that sacralizes capitalism with visions of individualistic transcendence. It’s easy for modern yoga culture to get tangled up in this pretty badly.
- Steve Jobs’ favourite book was Autobiography of a Yogi.
- Alternative culture is different from oppositional culture. It is apathetic to or even hostile towards concrete political action.
- Oppositional culture has no time for the Oneness Mode.
- One enduring legacy of the Sixties is that the public performance of alternative culture is dead easy to commodify.
- For all of these reasons and more, it’s may be more efficient — not to mention honest — to let the connections between yoga and activism be personally therapeutic, and largely hidden, instead of elevating them to new identitarian ideals, and just leave it at that. Whether Jesus said it or not, Matthew 6:5 records a cool idea: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. When you pray, go into your inner room.”
- BTW: Quoting Jesus gives no more substantive weight to any political argument than quoting Patanjali or Adi Shankaracharya does.
Left Hands, Right Hands: Secret Dialectic
Tantra! Tantra! Everybody wants to be all Tantric-y. With days to go in this horrible election campaign, I’m realizing that if it’s all tied up with the OM, I’ll take a pass on pop-Tantra. Sure, I’m a householder, and I write books that rail against spiritual bypassing and consumasceticism. I promote the folding of spirituality into everyday life. I present Ayurveda as a political practice as much as a self-care practice. Yes, the joy and trouble of this life is all one big messy thing. I meditate on laundry piles, compost diapers, make Ayurvedic wine to drink with roast chicken, and I gobble kitcheri while watching the undercard before Ronda Rousey kicks ass.
But the OM is something I can see clearly now, and I’m not buying it. I’m suspicious of any theme that wants to convert my capacity for self-regulation and wonderment into the premise that everything will turn out all right because it was always already perfect, or never really substantial. The OM encourages people to smile just a little too much, to be a little too invasive with their eye-contact, to infer a little too much camaraderie in spaces in which discussing race and class are taboo. I’m also wary of consolation. The entire culture wants to console me, even as it baits and oppresses others. “Your nature is divine” can have psychological value for a time, but it loses edge with each repetition, eventually begging the question, “So what?”
When I practice, I go into my inner room, move through postures, sit and breath, and experience capacities I too often forget: to feel my alone state distinct from my together state, to be free of language, to mine memories and sometimes heal them, to explore hatred and love, to relax the forward pulse of agency, to be so astounded that there’s a beating heart in here that it sometimes feels like it stops.
As the Canadian winter approaches, I know I have an inner room and can do all of this in a house with heating. I know I have the heating I have because my government is allowing flood waters to rise in places like Calcutta, where yoga is an ethnic heritage. This is a paradox I refuse to console with the OM, or allow to paralyze me with flip side of the OM, which is shame. It is a paradox that enhances my engagement with the oppositional.
I once used practice to help mend internal splits and soothe existential paradox. Now I seem to use it to inflame them.
Practice is what I do to restore myself from conflict, and to prepare myself for more conflict. It’s not an alternative to conflict, but a pause in conflict. It might help me have less stressful conflicts, but there are no guarantees. It might extend my life and maintain my mental health, but there are no guarantees. And because for all I know Harper, Abbott and Cameron might do yoga together to bring the power of the OM to each aggressive summit they hold, I know practice in itself holds no essential virtue to claim or brag about.
My practice is therapy against the stress of opposition, which is a moral constant. That’s all. I do not speculate that the sensations of asana or meditation reveal an eternal self or non-self inseparable from a perfected universe in which Bernie Sanders and Scott Walker blend into the smoothie of the absolute. Practice just helps me love more and be less reactive when it’s inefficient to be reactive. It shows me that privilege can be used to access regions of resolution and joy in life that I want everyone to have. But its more important gift is that it gives sustainability to my opposition to those who would steal resolution and joy.
I’m a practitioner. I’m an activist. These roles get along within me if they each keep their focus. They can give each other tips and critiques across the threshold of my inner room. The practitioner lights candles. The activist lights fires. The match is passed from the right to the left hand.
Before yoga, one of the many lines from Leonard Cohen that shook my bones was: “One hand on my suicide and one hand on the rose.” For years, practice helped to mend that internal bipolar opposition that swung between abject depression and overwhelming joy. Now that my inner life feels meh-to-good-enough, my hands can express an extroverted opposition. One hand holds a mudra, and the other holds a weapon. So maybe I’m Tantric-y after all.
Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing — another reported Jesus saying. The commentaries suggest he was warning against ostentation and hypocrisy. Public displays of yoga virtue that project premature oneness and obscure moral struggle are vulnerable to both.
But Jesus may also be describing a classic strategy in guerrilla warfare. No clandestine cell of an oppositional force should know much about what the other cells are doing. This is crucial for security, in case a cell is captured. But it also enhances the focus of each. My practitioner self needn’t be concerned with what my activist self is doing. Each shadowed to the other, they thrive on mutual inspiration. Perhaps they even compete. The farther inward one of them goes to explore and restore, the farther outward the other must venture, to risk and resist. If they keep their alliance secret, it cannot be commodified.
* David Chapman has a good overview of how modern liberal-left ideas get palimpsested onto a reconstruction of “ancient Buddhism.”
** A concise presentation of the alternative/oppositional distinction is laid out by Lierre Keith of Deep Green Resistance. I think Keith and DGR are tragically wrong both morally and tactically about their radical feminist position that excludes trans women, but Keith’s analysis of this issue is insightful nonetheless.
Excellent and timely insights, Matthew. Sometimes your vocabulary is sesquepedillian. Some readers may lose the thread as they check a dictionary. But just when the complex sentences push the brain into overdrive, you cool us down with some plain English we can all understand. Thank you for taking on the difficult and underrepresented issues in the field of yoga and life.