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Since the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January, there has been a groundswell of voices from around the world joining together to denounce this violent movement by white supremacists to overthrow the U.S. government. Except in yoga.
Instead, the argument I keep hearing is that yoga is not political, and that we should keep politics out of yoga spaces. In the yoga community, there seems to be some confusion about the relationship between yoga and politics.
But there has always been an intersection of yoga and politics. The Bhagavad Gita itself revolves around politics, war, and yoga. Or we can look back to Gandhi, and the way he used the yoga teachings as the basis for nonviolent resistance. He led a movement that overthrew the colonial British government and inspired Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. Those movements were a model for the social protests we see today. The seeds are there, but unlike Engaged Buddhism, “Engaged Yoga” isn’t a thing. Instead, we spend our days arguing about whether or not yoga is political.
People who say it isn’t usually base their arguments on one of two things:
First, some say that yoga isn’t political because they believe the practice is mostly about fancy poses and physical attainment. I’ve spent the last 25 years trying to debunk that claim and challenging the commercialization of yoga as whitewashed fitness. We know yoga can offer us nervous system regulation, peace, agency, empowerment, and of course, spiritual awakening. Why wouldn’t it be able to accommodate the social and the political? To me, this “yoga is exercise” argument just shows a lack of understanding of the complexity of the practice.
The second argument is more insidious. It comes from a more traditional perspective, which states that yoga is not political because it is a completely internal practice that focuses solely on working with our own minds. This is a pretty good argument, because much of the history of yoga is about monastic ascetics who focused on transcending the limitations of their bodies and minds to attain states of samadhi and escape rebirth.
We are not monks
Even today, you can find traditional practitioners in India who go to extreme lengths to overcome their bodies’ limitations. These are the yogis who hold their arms up in the air for years or who never sit down. These ascetics, like most early yoga practitioners centuries ago, are consciously trying to separate themselves from society, which they do through an austere monastic life. Yoga philosophy is full of teachings on this type of practice toward freedom from the limits of the natural world–for monks.
But the vast majority of contemporary yoga practitioners aren’t monks. We haven’t taken vows of celibacy, poverty, and non-attachment. We haven’t released all our worldly attachments to go live in a cave in the Himalayas. Most of us are just regular people living regular lives and having regular relationships with other regular people. Yes, we’re yoga practitioners, but we’re also parents, partners, business-owners, lawyers, construction workers, customer service representatives, grocery store clerks, reporters–you name it.
In contemporary yoga, when we see the echo of that monastic desire to separate from society, it sounds a lot like spiritual bypass—the conscious, or unconscious, desire to avoid the painful parts of life. We’ve taken the asceticism of yoga’s monastic past and mixed it with enough new-age gobbledygook to transform it into a path that we expect to be lined only in love and light. A path so focused on our individuality that we have lost our humanity.
It’s pretty clear that this perspective comes from a place of privilege. Not everyone can choose to engage in a yoga practice that is divorced from the rest of their lives. As a gay man, I can tell you that everything in my life is political. Take, for example, my 28-year marriage to my husband, which was only legally recognized six years ago. I know that members of other marginalized communities would agree that our very existence is political. We can’t take politics out of our lives just for the convenience of our spiritual practice, or to make our practice more palatable to other people—or even more palatable for ourselves.
Society is guided by politics
If, like me, you’re living as a householder—the grihastha stage of life in yogic culture—that means you are engaging with society through relationships, through work, and through other aspects of an organized social system. These social systems are guided by politics and the laws that firmly insert politics into our daily lives.
If you’re a householder yoga practitioner, then your practice demands an additional level of social awareness. You don’t have to call it politics, but there is a way that your practice automatically becomes socially engaged because your life is socially engaged. Practicing yoga is not an excuse to ignore what is happening around you. So, unless you’re a monk, you really have no excuse.
The question that we’re left with, then, is this: How do we cultivate an engaged yoga practice that is both respectful to its ancient roots, and yet responsive to the reality of our sometimes confusing, and often painful, lives today?
First, let’s stop pretending that we are monks living in caves dedicating 100% of our lives to yoga.
The reality is that most of us are householders who are making choices all the time regarding the way we spend our money, who we vote for, and how we talk to our friends about politics. As householder practitioners, we have an extra burden of responsibility in our practice. That is the responsibility to apply the teachings in every aspect of our lives—in our relationships, at work and, yes, in politics.
Yoga does ask us to reflect on how our own personal beliefs create our reality, but this doesn’t allow us to deny the shared reality that we are all experiencing–even if it’s painful. The effort to distract or distance ourselves from the pain of others is not yoga. Instead, by working on our own attachments, we can develop more compassion for ourselves and for others. Rather than allowing us to bypass painful feelings, the road to oneness actually leads us to a deep well of compassion. As Krishna explains in the Bhagavad Gita, “The yogi who perceives the essential oneness everywhere naturally feels the pleasure or pain of others as his or her own.” (Swami Satchidananda, 6.32)
Jivana Heyman, C-IAYT, E-RYT500, is the founder and director of Accessible Yoga, an international non-profit organization dedicated to increasing access to yoga. He’s the author of Accessible Yoga: Poses and Practices for Every Body (Shambhala Publications, November 2019), and the upcoming book, Yoga Revolution: Building a Practice of Courage and Compassion, coming fall 2021.
Adapted from an essay that first appeared on AccessibleYoga.org.