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Can Yoga Be a Tool for Political Change?

Beyond the self-care craze is an opportunity for activism

Students wind down a class at Santa Cruz's Luma Yoga.

Here’s one thing about yoga that keeps jumping out at me: It’s the last thing any of us could imagine Donald Trump ever attempting. A look within? That would scare the bejesus out of him. Seriously, the thought hits me all the time as I’m doing my best to move like seaweed in the current, rocking from cat to cow, cat to cow. I empty my mind and—Shazam!—there’s that Big-Brother-with-a-comb-over sourpuss face staring back at me.

Back in the last months before Trump, my older daughter Coco, then a toddler, was in the daycare room at Luma Yoga on Center Street in Santa Cruz, our regular yoga place. Coco came running out of the daycare room, and was soon pounding on the huge sliding wood door to the main yoga studio. Inside, Luma co-founder Valerie Moselle, just winding down a class, turned the disruption into a kind of teaching moment.

“Focus on your breathing,” she told the group inside. “Forgive that interruption.”

Everyone did their best not to feel annoyed by Coco’s pounding on the door.

“And forgive Donald Trump,” Valerie added.

It was an unexpected thing to say, but a great way to get people thinking.

“When a child is acting out, it’s easy to forgive, because they are a child,” Moselle says now, recalling that day. “I remember in those weeks I was becoming active, and bringing some of the politics into my yoga class, inviting us to grapple with difficult feelings and consider how those feelings might motivate us into positive action. On the one hand, we can’t control what is happening. We can only be present. On the other hand, we have agency to act in the world. The question is: How? And: With what kind of motivation? Do we act from a place of hate, anger or fear? Or can we work from a place of understanding our anger, hate and fear, couching that in favor of compassion and forgiveness, while still taking appropriate action against injustice?”

It’s a hard one. We have to try forgiving, or risk forever churning in a vat of corrosive acid, and yet, we can never escape the Mobius Strip. Trump’s America is an alarm bell endlessly ding-ding-dinging. What good does it do to spend an hour on your breathing, all building up to that floating-off-the-ground feeling that kicks in at the end, if minutes after exiting a yoga class news of some new outrage jolts the blood pressure, and a wave of fresh anger obliterates any and all feeling of calm? For perspective, I turned to UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, co-director of the Greater Good Science Center.

“I think there are two possibilities that flow out of the yogic tradition and East Asian thought,” says Keltner, a yoga practitioner for four decades. “One is the promising interpretation, which is that yoga, like the great contemplative traditions, allows you to listen to your mind, and in the mind are feelings of compassion and concern, and those motivate action, they prompt change and social action. The worrisome possibility is that yoga calms down the agitation and anger that we need to protest, and that has been shown empirically to lead to effective social change. The same is true for mindfulness. All these mindful retreats that I go to, are they making us too calm?”

It comes back to an uncomfortable question: What exactly is the point of yoga—and of mindfulness? Is it just to feel good? Or to feel better about ourselves? To count ourselves among the more knowing and the more tuned in? Or does the attempt at self-betterment ultimately include an element of bolstering ourselves to be stronger and more steadfast in standing for something, and in taking action?

POWER SURGE

Yoga, familiar for years but suddenly more trendy, is seeing a surge in participation. According to an Ipsos study commissioned by Yoga Journal and the Yoga Alliance, more than 36 million Americans practiced yoga in 2016, up from 20.4 million in 2012. Over that same period, the number of male yoga practitioners went from 4 million to 10 million, and yoga participation among people 50 and older more than tripled.

Yoga’s allure as practiced in the United States leans on its roots in India, an older civilization that we see as wiser and more grounded, with quotations from Mahatma Gandhi cropping up regularly. That’s cool, I’m down with Gandhi as a complex and fascinating figure, but given the India connection I always wonder why more yoga practitioners aren’t out practicing Gandhian civil disobedience and putting their lives on the line for social change? Sometimes it feels as if the energy that goes into yoga in fact diverts energy from the push for change. Is that unfair? Maybe. But it’s a question the community is facing—and it needs to come up with a better collective answer.

TEACHABLE MOMENT Luma Yoga co-founder Valerie Moselle says there's a balance between inward reflection and outward action.

TEACHABLE MOMENT Luma Yoga co-founder Valerie Moselle says there’s a balance between inward reflection and outward action.

“We teach ourselves to look inward for our intuition, to learn to feel truth through the body, but modern science tells us that our power of intuition is unreliable,” Moselle tells me. “Truth is very subjective. Lies are also concrete. One of the problems of modern yoga is … there is a desire among young people to be able to surrender to the universe, like: ‘I just feel that it’s right in my heart, and I’m just going to go with that.’ Or, ‘There has to be a reason, the universe is conspiring.’ All of this takes the responsibility off ourselves for acting in a productive way in our communities.”

We can’t just feel our way through our lives, Moselle says. “Your left brain and your right brain need to work together. That’s what I’m talking about with integration. You can’t just choose to lean on one side and say, ‘It will take care of itself.’ You have to do both.”

STATE OF MINDFULNESS

I agree that clarity of mind is a precondition for taking meaningful social action, as opposed to just typing nonsense via social media or stewing in your own sense of frustration. I had my mind blown earlier this year when I had the chance to meet Congressman John Lewis at his offices on Capitol Hill. Maybe you saw Lewis, clubbed repeatedly by racists over the years, on the most recent Academy Award broadcast, talking up The Green Book. He’s a great American—our last, best link to the late Rev. Martin Luther King., Jr.

I wasn’t thinking of yoga when I went into see Lewis, but the man’s style of listening reminded me of it; it was almost a kind of meditation, his eyes gently placed on mine, an easy smile animating his friendly curiosity, and an almost eerie sense of calm and quiet, as if he were focused 100% on me and every syllable I might care to share. He talked to me about learning from his spiritual teacher the Rev. Jim Lawson, recently returned to Nashville from an extended stay in India, who in the late 1950s tutored King, Lewis and other Civil Rights leaders on nonviolent civil disobedience and other principles then espoused by Gandhi.

Later I read this in Lewis’ memoir Walking With the Wind: “I couldn’t have found a better teacher than Jim Lawson … There was something of a mystic about him, something holy, so gathered, about his manner, the way he had of leaning back in his chair and listening, really listening … We discussed and debated every aspect of Gandhi’s principles, from his concept of ahimsa—the Hindu idea of nonviolent passive resistance—to satyagraha—literally, ‘steadfastness in truth,’ a grounding foundation of nonviolent civil disobedience, of active pacifism.”

I didn’t ask Lewis about yoga. And I’ve been unable to reach the Rev. Jim Lawson, pastor emeritus at Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, who is still going pretty strong at age 90, it seems, still talking about civil disobedience. “Part of my own quest for nonviolent action and struggle,” he told the Los Angeles Sentinel last year, “is to say the survival of the human family is dependent upon us moving away from hatred and fear of life to loving life and loving one another and creating a better society. And the United States must lead the way!”

I wrote a cover story for the Sunday Review section of The New York Times last summer on the Californization of U.S. politics, arguing that in countless ways California culture projected the future. “California’s raw economic power is old news,” I wrote, “What’s different, just in the past few years, is the combination of its money, population and politics. In the Trump era, the state is reinventing itself as the moral and cultural center of a new America.”

That’s why I think a new yoga of social commitment, not a radical new variation, just a shifting emphasis, will emerge with key contributions from yoga figures in Northern California like Valerie Moselle and many others.

“I’ve been seeing yoga lately as a tool for integration,” she tells me. “We live in a world where our nervous system, our bodies, our psyches are challenged in a way that we probably weren’t evolved or born to be able to handle, so we have to act fast in order to be able to keep all of those systems functioning optimally. Yoga, modern postural yoga, airs on the side of tending to the body, which is just exercise, and also, we know we need to exercise, so that’s fine. But modern postural yoga has the potential, because of some of the things that we inherit from its history and its original objectives, to integrate the nervous system and the brain.”

Ultimately, she says, self-care may not be ambitious enough. “Then also we want to add into that a layer of, ‘OK, this organism has some energy to put out into the world and impact my environment around me. But how? Where do I want to put that energy?,’” she says. “Hopefully, yoga practice would invite you to gather that energy and then also decide what you want to do with it. If what you want to do with it is just cultivate more internal organization and bliss, that’s one thing. But if what you want to do with it is actually affect change in your community, then that’s another.”

UNION RALLY

For as long as people in the U.S. have heard about the Hindu practice of yoga, a Sanskrit word that literally means “union,” the emphasis was on empowerment. The first New York Times consideration of yoga, in October 1893, prattles on in what seems to be satirical fashion about how:

“The Yoga is the science of the soul. It teaches a spiritual art which enables one to control physical forces. Through its holy sorcery you might say unto this house: ‘Be you removed into the depths of the sea,’ and it would be removed. … the power comes from meditation and concentration of the mind. One must posture in silence and abstraction. And this can best be attained, as I have said, by standing on one leg and looking at the tip of the nose. … Again there was silence, and the strain of muscles in posturing. Gradually lips that had twitched became set and eyes that had sparkled grew somber. Frivolity fled abashed, and in its stead came the anticipation and apprehension of the unknown. After all, something uncanny might happen, for was not everything—light, air, substance, existence itself—strange and fearful when seriously contemplated? … So, too, might not human actions start unreal consequences?”

It’s very helpful to read of yoga being mocked back in the 19th century. One of the problems with yoga is that it seems inevitably to encourage a smug self-absorption. As Elspeth Reeve wrote in a generally incoherent rant against yoga for The Atlantic in 2012, “People who do yoga think they’re better than you. Yoga people are the types who think it’s so great that a San Francisco yoga studio donated its used (yuck) yoga mats to Haiti to help homeless earthquake victims. They think people living in tents without running water need yoga mats.”

Actually, people living in tents with or without running water might very well be happy to have yoga mats, used or not, to sleep on, much more comfortable than sleeping on the ground. In fact, I’ve brought yoga mats on camping trips to throw down in a tent. Worked great. But the “better than you” charge carries some weight, which is why the real point of attempting to harness the power of yoga for more difference-making is to start with a different attitude. Yes, let’s thank the universe, yes, let’s mouth Sanskrit phrases we don’t really understand, and do it with an air of high purpose, but yoga doesn’t have to mean pompous or self-absorbed. It doesn’t have to mean self-congratulating.

Dacher Keltner would love to see California lead the way on a trend toward more overlap between yoga and social responsibility and social action. “I think it would be really interesting to launch a social-justice yoga studio,” he says. “You’d come in and do yoga and then it would be: Who is in need today? Afterward you could stop by and fix a faucet, or send money to help. One of the things I’m really excited about in the mindfulness world is that practitioners can teach it in places where there are yoga deserts. Figure out how to offer it. Teach yoga in prisons. Teach it to the military, as is increasingly happening. Take these tools that have been crafted for thousands of years and put them to use.”

Those are good ideas. So is thinking about the Rev. Jim Lawson and the pivotal role of churches in pushing for social change.

“Yoga is a spiritual practice,” Keltner says. “Southern churches have not shied away from political engagement. You could imagine an intentional commitment of the yoga movement where we would enable you to go out and canvass, here are some addresses, or give money or otherwise get involved. Right now, people are really hungry for alternative modes than polarization, and yoga could be a pathway to that. It might produce a different kind of discourse.”

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Patti

    May 1, 2019 at 1:28 pm

    It’s a shame you have turned yoga into a political weapon – so sad- I love Bikram – since 2002🙏

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