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Can Yoga Bridge Our Political Divides?

Activist and yoga teacher Reggie Hubbard says, yes. Here's how he uses his practice to create change on Capitol Hill.

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It’s that time of the year. As midterm elections near, our news feeds overflow with political ads, candidate debates, and nonstop punditry. For some people, these are exciting demonstrations of democracy in action. It makes others want to curl up in Child’s Pose.

For Reggie Hubbard, it’s a little bit of both. He says used to be a hard-driving political operative who lived on cigars, whiskey, and adrenaline. Now, he’s still a high-energy political operative, but his energy comes from another source. He’s also the founder of Active Peace Yoga, a platform for political strategy, yoga instruction, and other “cool projects” that intersect both.

As the Chief Serving Officer of the organization, he’s a role model for how civic life and yoga can come together in the service of good.

Bridging the political divide

The US has had political differences since before the states were united. What’s new is the width of the chasm over which people are shouting–and the internal fractures forming on each side.

Research shows that America was becoming increasingly divided—and that polarization within parties is also on the rise. Such divisions lead to high emotions on the one hand and a sense of hopelessness on the other. A rising number of people are saying they feel like strangers in their own country.

The divide shows up in the yoga community, too, where some people think that yoga principles offer the ideal guidelines for addressing social and political issues, while others are adamant that politics has no place in the practice devoted to personal peace.

Do yoga and politics mix? If anyone has a strong opinion on the perpetual question, it’s Hubbard. For him the answer is an obvious yes…and it’s complicated.

“We have some work to do civically,” he says. “I do not believe yoga is a practice of comfort. I believe it gets us comfortable with discomfort and from that comfortability with discomfort we can ask audacious questions and transform the world.”

Gratitude for gifts of adversity

Hubbard was trying to transform the world well before he got into yoga. “I got involved in politics to help people. I didn’t get involved in politics to backstab and social climb,” he says. He describes his early experience with political life as extremely destructive.

After an unsuccessful bid for a post in the Obama administration, he took a break and vowed to only do things that lowered his blood pressure, were “artsy,” or that he’d never done before. When someone invited him to a yoga class, it checked all three boxes. He enjoyed it enough to keep at it, but it wasn’t until he found himself in a challenging work situation that he fully understood the power of his practice.

He had moved from DC to Colorado for a job that turned sour fast. “Every day it was just microaggressions and extreme racism,” he says. “Yoga gave me space to be in this horrific environment with equanimity.”

When he got a message (via text) telling him that he’d been fired, he says, “I responded by saying, ‘Blessings and peace to you. Thank you for the gift of adversity and the lesson on how to handle that with grace and wisdom.’” That reaction surprised even him. He realized that something about the yoga practice was working.

Mining mindful muscle memory

Almost immediately after the Colorado job ended, the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign called; they needed his help. Hubbard was reluctant to get back into the political world. But one of his teachers pointed out the unique opportunity he was being given to practice his discipline in what he calls “the heart of darkness.” He said yes.

To maintain his equilibrium and his commitment to his yoga practice, he drew some lines in the sand. “If this job impacts my practice or my health I’m out,” he told Sanders’ campaign managers. He cut meetings short if they interfered with his meditation, and made time for yoga during his travels. He turned his work into dharana, a practice of intense focus.

Traveling the country to produce campaign events that draw thousands of people creates an environment that’s rife with potential for frayed nerves and conflict. Instead of using his yoga as a private practice to get away from the stress, he brought his practice to work–greeting people with peace and blessings, guiding his direct reports away from grind culture, and calming tense meetings by having people do breathwork. When things went wrong—as they inevitably do when you’re managing so many people and moving pieces—he leaned into “mindful muscle memory” instead of the typical yelling, blaming, and panic.

“When someone would come at me [with a problem] I’d be like, okay, shoulders back, head level, breathe in through the nose, out through the nose. Then, okay, what’s going on?…What are we gonna do about it?”

Reggie Hubbard, founder of Active Peace Yoga, stands in front of the U.S. Capitol
(Photo: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images )

Yoking yoga and civic life

When he returned to his home base in Washington, he dove headlong into both yoga and political life.

“I took my 200-hour teacher training while flipping the House of Representatives, and took my 300-hour while being the strategic advisor for the impeachment of the president,” he says. He taught occasionally as a sub in studios. “But pre pandemic, there really wasn’t space for me, and I really wasn’t looking to do it.”

“The first official public class I taught on my own was April 4, 2020,” he says. By then the world was in the midst of a pandemic layered over national political turmoil and racial justice protests. But he had developed the tools to engage in politics in a new way. He saw how he could use yoga principles as the basis for how he worked in political circles—and help guide the yoga and wellness communities to be more engaged citizens.

In these politically polarized spaces, closing gaps means building the bridges first.

Finding common ground

“It starts with talking to people–even those who may not agree with you,” he says. But across-the-aisle dialogue doesn’t just happen; you have to create the conditions for it.

“We have to rest people’s nervous systems so that they don’t feel under attack, under threat, under duress, angry,” he says. That’s where yoga and contemplative practice comes in. It prepares the ground for seeding new ideas. And even that has to be done carefully. “I am not just dropping things or throwing ideas at people. I’m placing them,” says Hubbard.

“From a yogic perspective, we have far more in common than we think that we do,” he says. “And we just need to talk about what we share as opposed to what we don’t share.”  Seeking out commonalities is part of yoga practice, Hubbard says. It’s how we embody the common translation of namaste—to see and honor the humanity in one another. “As we come together, we realize there really isn’t that much separation. The only separation is the one that we create.”

Our  yoga practice provides direction. “The same cues that someone might offer in an asana practice are applicable to the hard conversations; they are applicable to the intractable nature of things as they seem right now,” he says, likening the process to following the cues to soften into a pose. “If we can do it in asana, why can’t we do it in life?”

Making an impact

This sentiment has opened doors for him personally and professionally. He says he never thought it would be possible to meld yoga, meditation, grassroots activism, and political work. “But the promise and the blessing of yoga is the merging of these things together. And as those things merge, they blossom into a beautiful hybrid,” he says.

“I view my teaching practices as a means to liberate suffering for all across my path,” he says. The practice is not just what happens on the mat or on the cushion or even in the halls of power. “It can just be a smile in traffic. It can be [a nod] on the subway. But if you take that seriously, then you begin to see how that shifts the environment around you.”

His impact is being felt.

“One of the best compliments I’ve received in my life is from Ayana Pressley [the U.S. representative from Massachusetts],” he says. “She was like, ‘Brother, you’re so cool that when you walk in, blood pressure drops.’ That is why I do what I do.”

Mapping the path forward

Hubbard is currently working with leaders in the contemplative community on a project called Mind Our Democracy. “We’re looking to inspire the spiritual community in civic engagement,” he says. They are taking a direct action against the idea that there’s no room for political or civic action in contemplative space.

The group, including Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, Konda Mason, Maya Breuer, and a whole who’s who of leaders in meditation, mindfulness, and yoga communities, “recognizes voting as an extension of contemplative practice.” Mindfully casting a ballot is a start to changing the world.

“We can’t forecast the future, we can just do the best we can with the present,” he says. And yoga will help.

“If yoga can transform us individually, why not collectively?” Hubbard asks. “I stand by the notion of the transformational power of yoga,”