Socially Engaged Yoga: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?


Creative Commons License photo credit: Sudhamshu

I’m thinking – or maybe dreaming – that the time is ripe for the flowering of new forms of socially engaged Karma Yoga.

Consider the following:

1. We have an oversupply of yoga teachers. The popularity of yoga, plus the proliferation of teacher training programs, has produced an unprecedented number of teachers who want to put their skills to use – but, between the glut of TT grads and the ongoing recession, are having a hard time filling up their classes.

2. We have millions of stressed out, unhealthy people. Cruising the aisles of Whole Foods, you might maintain the happy delusion that Americans are a healthy, happy lot. But step outside of such rarified environs, and it’s stunningly evident that this is most certainly not the case. If you keep up with the news, you know the statistics. A shocking 68% of American adults are overweight or obese. Eighteen percent suffer from anxiety disorders, and 10% from depression. And so on and so forth.

3. We have social services being cut across the board. When I signed on to teach yoga to women in jail, I was taken aback to hear that literally all their other services had been cut. Other than a once-a-week yoga class run by volunteers, these women are forced to sit in jail with nothing to do. With the federal government dysfunctional, state governments broke, and nonprofits struggling for a shrinking pool of funding, this is an all-too-common scenario. From military veterans to homeless youth, there’s less and less funding for the social services that millions need.

4. We have countless yoga practitioners who want a stronger sense of community. Even if many people start yoga simply for exercise, they soon find that it means much more to them than that. Consequently, there’s a natural desire to share this experience with others. (This is probably a big reason that so many people want to teach.) Yet, yoga classes are often pretty isolating. You go to a studio, take your class, and leave. As everyone rushes off to the next thing on their schedule, the experience of the class – which can be quite moving and powerful – can easily remain completely disconnected from the rest of your life. And this, of course, can leave you feeling kinda lonely in your practice.


Creative Commons License photo credit: kaibara87

Put Facts 1-4 together and what do you get?

Well, of course that depends what we make of this confluence of circumstances. But I see an opportunity for new collaborations between underemployed yoga teachers, students looking for a greater sense of community, and Americans who could really benefit from some instruction in yoga and meditation, but couldn’t possibly afford classes – and might not feel comfortable going to your typical studio.

To some extent, this is already happening. A recent article in New York Magazine reported on a new “boomlet” in what they called “welfare yoga” – that is, offering free classes in venues ranging from NYC’s Central Park to library branches to “the Central Presbyterian Church gym.” Now, while I strongly recommend relegating the term, “welfare yoga,” to the dustbin of history (I mean, c’mon – talk about negative connotations), it’s notable that what’s more properly termed Karma Yoga is making it into the mainstream press.

Much I love this trend of teaching yoga to under-served populations, I recognize that this path is not for everyone. For one thing, the emphasis on teaching asana leaves little room for practitioners who aren’t teachers, but have other valuable skills to share, such as organizing, grant writing, or maybe even just throwing some great, community building parties.

I’ve long been an admirer of socially engaged Buddhism – and yearned for an equivalent in the yoga community. And it seems that the time is ripe, and it’s starting to happen. But what I’d most like to see is us tackling the realities of an oversupply of yoga teachers, a shockingly unhealthy nation, decimated social services, and a yearning for more community in new, creative, outside-of-the-box ways.

Maybe yoga teachers who need more work could team up with students who want more community and brainstorm together about creating something new. Asana classes at the school gym that fundraise for a local food panty? Book groups where practitioners explore spirituality both through reading and meditation? Dance parties designed to network people who want to explore socially engaged yoga?

Who knows what creative minds and pranafied bodies might come up with?


Creative Commons License photo credit: Krikit ?

Now, I know that teachers need to make money, and that most of us lead busy lives. Perhaps, however, some initiatives could incorporate or lead to a paying gig for the teacher. And, with a shift in consciousness, in which yoga starts to mean more than simply asana, more people may be motivated to find the necessary time for social engagement and community building.

So I’m wondering:

Do you know of – or can you imagine – alternative forms of yoga teaching, practice, and community-building that inspire you?

 What might a reinvented model of Karma Yoga look like in 2011?

Posted by:

- who has written 8 posts on Yoga Modern.

Carol is a Contributing Editor to Yoga Modern. A Certified Forrest Yoga Teacher, she teaches yoga to incarcerated women at the Cook County Women’s Detention Facility with the non-profit group, Yoga for Recovery. Author of Race and the Making of American Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005), she’s currently finishing a new book entitled 21st Century Yoga: Paradoxes of Contemporary Practice. Carol holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago and taught American Politics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Since leaving academia to be with her husband in Chicago and start a family, she’s worked as a research consultant to nonprofit organizations, specializing in issues affecting low-income children and families. In addition to Yoga Modern, her online activities include blogging at Think Body Electric and Elephant Journal, maintaining a Facebook Page dedicated to news and discussion about yoga and meditation, and mixing it up on Twitter. Carol lives in Chicago with her husband, two sons, and two krazy catz.

8 Responses

  • Street Yoga says:

    Thank you Carol for this lively discussion of the rising popularity of yoga teacher trainings, and growing need for health & wellness in this country. At Street Yoga we work to create a deep sense of self-inquiry and self-care in order to send well-informed teachers out into social service sites across America where disadvantaged youth's basic needs are already being addressed. We hope to supplement that care with the introduction of yoga, mindfulness, and compassionate communication. As partner organizations begin to take up the mantle of yoga service in their communities, we look to create even more support through the Yoga Service Council http://yogaservicecouncil.org/ :: This discussion is so essential to the awakening of karma in all those who seek the liberation of every person in this world. Thank you!

    :: Alice Noyes
    :: Communications Manager, Street Yoga

    • Carol Horton says:

      Alice, thanks for your comment. I did the Street Yoga training last February and it was terrific. Plus I was able to connect with so many wonderful people. Thank you for the information on the Yoga Service Council. Wonderful news and great work.

  • Jo Fletcher says:

    Hi Carol! You make some great points – there is definitely a yearning for community and connection to something greater than ourselves through each other. Recently this has manifest itself for me in the form of a weekly gathering focused on discussion around spirituality. We are currently working our way through the lessons in A Course in Miracles. When my friend Tammy and I were discussing it, we assumed that we would probably have a small audience and perhaps this would be too "out there" for lots of people. We are pleasantly surprised by the fact that the evening and the practice are proving to relevant and of interest to lots of people from all walks of life. We are almost at risk of overcrowding in Tammy's living room!! The sessions are completely free of any obligation and yet people turn up every week full of enthusiasm and delight about the opportunity. I practice yoga every day and I do wonder how this trend will manifest in the yoga community and community at large. Watch this space!!

    • Carol Horton says:

      Jo – That sounds like a wonderful experience. Congrats to you for taking the initiative. I'm sure that people really appreciate having that sort of community and shared experience.

  • Hannah says:

    Carol, yes, we do need more yoga service, however as part of such a start-up group we are running into basic legal things that need to be in place in order to safely do this. It is smart to have personal and group liability protections for this type of worka nd it usually means becomign an LLC or joining up with another organizaiton. I know that the Yoga Service Countil is looking to expand their help with all this and this has been such a life-saver with us as we are now in talks with them. The more we can form some type of national structure, the more easily we can implement this type of work!

    • Carol Horton says:

      Thanks, Hannah. Yes, having laws to help ensure safety for all concerned seems absolutely necessary for this sort of service work. But it's also true that it's important not to let those become obstacles to engagement. I'm glad to hear that there's an organization that's on the case and working to find an optimum balance between needed regulation and lowering barriers to entry.