Do actions speak louder than asanas?

Creative Commons License photo credit: AndYaDontStop

The “Occupy” movement has no doubt sparked several conversations and debates here at Yoga Modern.  This is no surprise, as politics has always been a controversial subject matter. But then throw in ideas about what yoga is, is not, should be, etc. and we’re left with a lot of ifs, ands, or buts.

My first reaction to hearing about yoga’s involvement with #OccupyWallStreet was less than enthusiastic. But then Yoga Modern contributing editor, Carol Horton, asked:

Should yogis stick to Seva, and stay away from politics?

I found this interesting because the defining lines between “activism,” “seva,” and “karma yoga” are often blurred, even indistinguishable at times. Although the term activism implies having a political or societal agenda, they all share a common etymological root — “action” — in their definition.

OccupyMN protest in Minneapolis: Day 1
Creative Commons License photo credit: Fibonacci Blue

Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, and Cesar Chavez, for example, all embodied characteristics of both a “karma yogi,” and a “political activist.”  They may not have practiced asana as a form of protest, but they did preach non-violence, help those in need, and shape the political landscape of their time.

Sure, yoga flash mobs raise a few eyebrows. But will public displays of yoga actually yield results?

Is it possible for our public demonstrations of asana to change the hearts of big businesses?  Will corporate executives make better choices just we’re talking about “unity” and “finding our voice” at Occupy protests? I don’t intend to sound cynical, I truly believe we have the power to change the world. But as Gandhi was once quoted saying:

“Action expresses priority.”

We can make clever picket signs, practice yoga on Wall Street, even expose the corruption that often goes unseen, but our day-to-day actions speak louder than our chants.  We hate the bank bailouts, and yet many of us continue to charge to our credit cards.  We are fed up with the corporate model, but we still we work for them, cash their checks, and purchase their products.

The supreme illusion.
Creative Commons License photo credit: digitalpimp.

Is there no other choice?  Well, yes there is.  Is it convenient?  Most likely no.  Look at the history of protests in the United States (particularly the Civil Rights Movement) and it was so much more than sit-ins, speeches, and demonstrations that got voices heard.  In fact it was not their words, but their actions that defined their voices.

Rosa Parks sat firmly in her seat at the cost of both her’s and her husband’s jobs leaving them to struggle financially for years.  Nearly the entire black community walked long distances to work for 381 days during the Montgomery Bus Boycott making it clear that they would no longer accept racial segregation on public transportation.

What if we used such tactics in addition to yoga demonstrations, sit-ins, and other passive forms of protest?  What would happen if all the individuals “protesting” withdrew their funds from banks, cut up credit cards, and said no more to the financial industry as it stands now?  What if everyone refused to drive, use public transport, or anything that consumed fuel until alternative options were available?

If we stopped spending our money to corrupt corporations, perhaps we could induce them to re-evaluate their operations and maybe even claim ourselves independent of their “system?”  I don’t claim to have the answers by any means, but I do think we’re going to have to make sacrifices to see the “changes” we all claim to want.

Day 3 Occupy Wall Street 2011 Shankbone 5
Creative Commons License photo credit: david_shankbone

Sometimes, it seems like the idea of protesting is more glamorous and romantic than the work it takes to create real change. Do you think asanas, meditations, and talks about unity are enough?

Posted by:

- who has written 21 posts on Yoga Modern.

Patience Steltzer is the Assistant Editor for the World Affairs Current at Yoga Modern. She spends her time drawing, painting, sewing, writing, and practicing/teaching yoga in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. After a lifetime of having no idea what to do with her creativity and energy, she discovered yoga allowed her to find the beauty and excitement in stillness. Since then, she has dedicated herself to sharing her love of yoga with others to help them find the joy she has.

3 Responses

  • Kathy says:

    Maybe not enough. But a start. Because when we practice our yoga on the mat and take it into the world with love and compassion, miracles happen.

  • Vision_Quest2 says:

    That has to include studio classes and private sessions, which are priced to the carriage trade. If your bank account(s) reside closer to the 1% you don't feel the pinch as much as I do …

    At those prices aren't they actually part of the problem rather than part of the solution?

    I would not be surprised, though, if yoga studios have raised their prices and added to the teacher trainings to make up for the lack of sympathy towards, and participation in … walk-in yoga classes … the best yoga is being done on the Street and not in asana in the studio or Lululemon store …

  • harikirtana says:

    The Bhagavad Gita begins with the question "how did they act", not "what did they say". So I wholeheartedly agree with you that our off the mat actions, how we embody the values of yoga, are more important than our words or the symbolic value (if it even has that) of doing asana at a protest rally.

    In order for our culture to change we have to change the way we live, beginning with a constructive disengagement from the elements of consumer culture. Unfortunately those elements are the things that make our life convenient and comfortable. Since consumer culture is ultimately unsustainable we have a choice; voluntary inconvenience and discomfort (tapasya) now or involuntary inconvenience and discomfort later.

    A yoga concept worthy of consideration in this regard is yukta vairagya: appropriate renunciation. There are a couple of ways to practice this. For starters, just as we can practice yoga even if we are not yet fully observing the yamas and niyamas (although I would argue that acknowledging and aspiring to observe them is mandatory), we can renounce the accoutrements of consumer culture in a progressive way, one step at a time, in order to ease out of the convenient and comfortable lives with which we have become so familiar and into a different way of living that is as unfamiliar as it is necessary.

    In many cases I think this will begin with figuring out how to slow down. This is actually very difficult for us; we are engrossed in the mode of passion, instant gratification, schedules packed so tight we have no room to breath let alone walk instead of taking the bus or taking the bus instead of driving our car. So the question here is; "how can we slow down the pace of our lives and how slow can we go?"

    Once we've slowed down enough to think we can ask ourselves "Who is being served by my actions?" When you think about it, all of our actions are a form of service. When our service is directed toward our own pleasure then the mentality that created our consumer culture is still present. If our service is meant for the benefit of others – family, friends, society, humanity – there may still be a selfish motive, albeit an extended one. Traditional yoga wisdom texts recommend a form of service that transcends worldly selfishness: service to the source of all being or offering one's life energy to the Supreme Being without attachment to the fruits of our actions. My feeling is that any action short of this category still retains at least the seed of the consciousness that created the consumer culture with which those who participate in or sympathize with the Occupy protests feel so much dissatisfaction, but this idea gives us a worthy, though lofty, target to shoot for.

    Another idea is that one can chop down a tree with an axe that has a handle made from wood taken from a branch of the same tree that you are chopping down. When environmentalists gathered from around the country to stage a protest at a press conference given by the CEO of Chevron, he thanked the protestors for using his company's product in the course of arriving at their destination. Ha ha very funny, Mr. Watson, but the point remains: If we find creative ways to use the means of consumer culture to bring about it's transformation into yoga culture, that's also yukta vairagya.