Do Yoga and Politics Not Mix? Asana at Wall Street Protest Elicits Yawns, Sneers.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Alex E. Proimos

As an avid yoga practitioner who’s deeply concerned about the state of American society, I was intrigued when I ran across the odd headline, “Occupying Wall Street With Yoga, Pillow Fights, and Small-Group Discussions” a little over a week ago. What’s this?, I thought. New York Magazine explained:

Saturday (9/17) at noon, a group that calls itself “Occupy Wall Street” is going to try to live up to their name for as long as they can. But first, (there’s) a program that includes yoga, a pillow fight, face-painting, small break-out groups to discuss topics like derivatives, and a lecture from an author . . . It sounds a little bit like camp, or maybe one of those pre-college orientation bonding sessions. But as the group says on its website, it’s actually a “leaderless resistance movement” meant to protest the concentration of wealth at the top of society — the “99 percent” standing up against the “1 percent.” Essentially . . . it’s meant as a rebuke of ‘neoliberal economics,’ and a youth-driven lefty answer to the Tea Party.

And that, as they say, was just the beginning. Ten days later, “Occupy Wall Street” is still on. And, it’s expanded to 17 other cities, including my hometown, Chicago.

So far, I’ve mainly been following the protests on Twitter. (Check the hashtag #occupywallstreet for nonstop info). And from what I’ve seen so far, I’m a supporter. But that’s not the point of this post.

Rather – picking up on Managing Editor Chelsea Roff’s call to “burst the yoga bubble” by becoming more involved with today’s pressing social problems – I want to ask:  What, if anything, ever happened with the protest’s initial connection to yoga?

And: What, in your opinion, should be happening – if anything?

It’s notable that when two of our best yoga bloggers, Yoga Dork and It’s All Yoga Baby, covered the yoga/protest connection, the response seemed to range from hostile to indifferent.

Yoga Dork’s post, “Protestors ‘Occupy Wall Street’ With Yoga,” drew a lackluster seven comments, all of them negative. “Involving asana so publically in an ill-defined protest seems like an attempt to prove their liberal, hippy cred,” complained one commentator. “I wonder if any of the yoga protesters were wearing Lululemon?,” sneered another. “Lulu’s stock is up almost 3 points today.”

A few days later, IAYB’s post, “Occupy Wall Street: Transition From a Culture of “I” to “We”,” drew a grand total of zero comments.

Creative Commons License photo credit: brunosan

Now, there’s been a growing movement toward service work, or Seva, within the yoga community, which seems widely respected. Yet, when yoga’s associated with a political protest, it appears to draw only sneers – or even more commonly, yawns.

Perhaps, however, that resounding silence is well-considered. Perhaps connecting yoga to politics is too divisive for a community that values unity, and seeks to create a safe space in which everyone can feel included, regardless of our differences.

What do you think? Should yogis stick to Seva, and stay away from politics?

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.

30 Responses

  • prettyhumanbeings says:

    Carol, thank you so much for this post. I have a dear friend who is a yogi and a soldier in the Canadian military. We just spent a week together and my views on compassion/empathy/war/protest have been deeply probed and shaken in a way that I hope drives me deeper to the core of these things.
    One thing I feel about the current state of the yoga community is that much of what is said in critique of culture is said from a distant and detached place. I feel concern that the call for peace is a cover up for indifference and that compassion is used as an escape from defense and protection of the helpless.
    Your consideration that politics are perhaps too divisive for a community that values unity is accurate. However, in our pluralistic society, uniformity is not the same as unity and yet we seem to get confused on that point. We must learn to appreciate and respect difference instead of long for uniformity.
    Unity can take place in the presence of disagreement and argument. In fact, I believe that the yoga community should embody the evolution toward this ideal where to be different does not require hostility, where debate can take place with both fire and deep connection.
    Should yogis stick to Seva and stay away from politics? I would ask, is there space for Seva in the world of policy? Can protestors be servants too? How can we address the assumed polarity between yoga and politics in a way that fires up some constructive conversation about how to be active citizens in our communities?
    I hope we get to talk more about this. This is as interested as I have felt about a yoga conversation in awhile :) Thanks for applying the heat.

    • Carol Horton says:

      Lauren – Great comment that brings up sooo many big issues.

      In particular – once you start thinking into it more deeply, what does "politics" really mean? To me, the realm of the political includes anything and everything that has to do with the distribution of power in society – it's not just parties, government, etc.

      So, to assume that what we call Seva (which really seems to mean charitable work as the term is used today – serving the underserved, etc.) is NOT a part of politics is itself political – and, in fact, very much in keeping with the direction of our political life today, which has been embracing individual competition as the basis for social interaction for some time now . . .

      I really support your call for intense and engaged but also respectful dialog across differences. From what I've seen, the yoga community still has a LONG way to go on that, BUT we're still starting off from a MUCH stronger basis than what's going on most other places – not saying much, but it's something!

  • yogadork says:

    Hey Carol, thanks for continuing the convo. I see yoga as a way to unite people who are standing up for something, whether it's politically charged, or raising funds for disease research. Plenty of people will scoff at the public displays but I find they're the same people who sneer at protesters in general. Here I see yoga as a communal thing, whereas yoga does not = politics, but community.

    • Carol Horton says:

      Hi, YD, thanks for being here. I get what you're saying but I had to ask myself: how would I feel if groups of people whose politics I really disliked – e.g., the most out there Tea Partiers who like to hold up signs of Obama as Hitler and so on – started doing yoga at their rallies? Now, I know that it probably will never happen, but it's a good hypothetical. While I like to think that I'd see it as a way of finding some common ground, it's also quite possible that I'd resent the fact that they were associating yoga with a cause I hate. So, to the extent that yoga is used to build community at protests like OWS – to me, that is: 1) political in the broad sense of the word, and 2) likely to be divisive, creating rifts between yogis who love the GOP or are investment bankers (say) and those who see such forces as at the heart of what's destroying the country.

      That said, I'm a lefty and I do yoga, so I'm happy if the protesters find it community building and rejuvenating – I support them – but – if yoga actually did become associated with such movements (which at this point seems doubtful) I feel certain that it would be divisive.

  • harikirtana says:

    Yoga is not only deeply connected to politics (as anyone who recalls the circumstances under which the Bhagavad-gita was spoken knows) but it is the most radical form of political action! This is because yoga turns the concept of the self and our position in the world 180 degrees away from the contemporary concept and position of the self. And with that radical re-definition of self comes a radical shift in values. I think that the reason so many members of the contemporary yoga community, with their very artificial ideas of inclusivity and misguided notions of non-judgement, aren't identifying with this particular political action is because they identify more with the values of the people and institutions that have created the current economic crisis than with the values of traditional yoga. At the end of the Bhagavad-gita Arjuna was fully self-realized and felt no hostility toward his enemies on the battlefield. And then he killed them.

    • Carol Horton says:

      Whoa. Strong statement, which gives the term "warrior" some real immediacy.

      If yoga could be used to create that sort of engagement with equanimity, allowing protest without the usual anger, hatred, and venting, that would be a beautiful thing. Reminds me of the best of the civil rights movement.

      Thanks for commenting and taking the discussion to a deeper level.

      • Carol Horton says:

        P.S. Just to be clear – RIghtly or wrongly, I was taking that last sentence about killing metaphorically. I personally am only in favor of nonviolent protest, whether on the left, right, or center.

  • Sheryl says:

    Hi Carol,

    I agree with the commenter above that to be a yogi is an inherently radical political act, and that those in the community who focus solely on unity, non-judgment, and following one’s bliss are missing the most challenging and rewarding aspects of the practice.

    I wonder how many folks are on Wall Street right now who have chosen to participate as humans, rather than as yogis. I guess what I mean is that during the protests in Madison, I never felt the need to bust out an asana during a march or demonstration. Yes, my sangha did meet to meditate in the Capitol Rotunda in the evenings, but we always found a very out-of-the way corner of the building to sit in. Mostly I just participated as a concerned citizen. It seems that doing sirsasana in a crowd would have served only to draw attention to myself and away from the cause. Maybe it’s the look-at-me aspect of this public yoga that makes some in the community shy away.

    On the other hand, a lovely photo of two of my sisters practicing asana in the Capitol during the height of the protests in Wisconsin made many national newspapers. Their peaceful faces and grounded bodies in the midst of the chaos made me proud to be a yogi; however, I still declined to practice in public with them that morning.

    What does this mean? I guess that even though my politics and my practice are inextricably interwoven, I still keep them separate to some degree. Maybe that’s some of what we’re seeing in the greater yoga community.

    • Carol Horton says:

      Interesting angle. To be fair, it wasn't my sense the the Wall Street protestors were using yoga in a look-at-me way – but, I get your point. Being ostentatious about doing yoga in public to score points of some sort is a turn-off.

      My guess, however, is that the reason the yoga community seems uninterested in the protests is simply because they are, well, uninterested. On the whole, I've always experienced it as a highly apolitical culture (Madison, of course, excepted!)

  • Barbra Brady says:

    I just watched this clip which an NYC artist friend forwarded. Watching the "swells" in their finery sip champagne above the protestors makes me absolutely ill. I cannot quite comprehend this is true…definitely enough to rouse me, for starters putting some more fire into my own yoga practice that I may have the shakti to speak up. Watch this clip:

    • Carol Horton says:

      Thanks, good clip. Speaking of clips, everyone should watch the now semi-famous one of the women being Maced – disturbing but important in terms of being informed:

      There is also a really nice interview with one of the women who was maced that I can't find right now, but she's completely undaunted – says that she'll continue to protest, but from now on with "sunglasses, a bandana, and a big smile" – pretty effing impressive if you ask me.

  • Hanna says:

    Well, the first problem is that no one seems to know what they were protesting including the protesters themselves according to several interviews I saw. Secondly, they insisted on using some dopey yoga poses like they do in yoga studios. If they really wanted to use yoga, they should have performed all kinds of yoga austerities, hunger strikes, non-violent, passive resistance or even set a couple of themselves on fire. Perhaps if they came down to Wall St. like the militant yogis under the Raj the press would have taken them serious. Instead they used yoga lite which just comes off as plain silliness from people who haven’t suffered real hardship resulting in protest lite. I wonder if each generation needs to learn how to do a proper protest.

    • Carol Horton says:

      Hanna – Thanks so much for your comment. I am glad to hear a different perspective here!

      I agree that it's clear that there's no single, simple, and easily identifiable demand that unifies the protest. While there is a general theme, there are lots of different individual views. Many people have criticized this and dismissed the protests on that basis.

      Personally, I see this as a manifestation of the fact that while we have a clear problem (the biggest concentration of wealth in over half a century and the co-optation of the federal government by this wealthy elite), no one has any solution to the problem that fits into the "one demand" framework. It just doesn't exist.

      In terms of the use of yoga – impossible to know what really was intended and what occurred – relatively little, it seems – but, so far, from what I know the protests have in fact been nonviolent.

      In terms of people setting themselves on fire or otherwise upping the ante for "real" protest – personally, I hope that we don't come anywhere near that point – be careful what you wish for.

  • Cristine says:

    Protests and uprisings have their place. In America, we all have the right to vote – for president, senators, congressmen…. but how many of us actually do? Very, very few. When more people than ever voted, we elected Obama. But how many of those same voters turned out and voted in House Members to coordinate with him? Not enough, for darned sure. Yoga is great, protests are great. But to get the attention we want in the political arena, I say get off the mat and get to the polls.

    • dsunshine says:

      –Apple-Mail-53–354280425 Content-Transfer-Encoding: quoted-printable Content-Type: text/html; charset=us-ascii approve

    • Carol Horton says:

      Agreed – protests are much more easily ignored when not tied to election outcomes. That's why the Tea Party and the Religious Right have clout – their people vote diligently, not to mention run for office themselves.

      Problem is that there is a much better fit in terms of interests between these groups and the GOP and this protest and the Democrats. Nonetheless, there's nowhere else to go (and third parties never work in our system) so I too believe that it's a necessary strategy regardless.

      Thanks for your comment!

  • Carol,
    Connecting yoga to politics is not divisive if you consider that yoga is a philosophy that encourages truth and reflection and kindness and growth. Yoga wisdom says that we are more than a person in his/her own skin living a life separate from strangers. It does not say some are good and some are bad but indicates that we are all somewhat confused and may benefit from dispelling that confusion.

    There is no benefit to performing asana at a demonstration unless it is to stave off physical discomfort. It has nothing to do with yoga and politics. If religious devotees choose to pray at an uprising, if athletes choose to jump up and down at an uprising, if intellects choose to carry signs with thoughtful expressions, if yogis choose to do asana etc., so be it. It does not make that protest about personal agenda. It simply allows personal observances that do not hurt anyone else, to flourish.

    However, I do think that separating yourself into a sub group within the bigger group can cause feelings of isolation and that detracts from the power of the biggest intention; to be one people with a common interest.

    • Carol Horton says:

      Hilary – Thanks so much for adding your voice here. I actually really like your vision of a collection of people alternatively doing asana, writing slogans, and doing athletics together as their interests and talents dictate. True, this could be divisive – but it could also be enriching and energizing.

      Honestly, when you think of how these demonstrations are unfolding, with people camping out in the streets for days on end, it seems like asana could be very useful on an immediate, physical level – they're going to be stiff, and uncomfortable, and cold! Beyond this, however, I can also envision (at least in the best case scenario) that asana could help strengthen spirits and rededicate the commitment to nonviolence in the same way as prayer, chanting, or meditation.

      My dream would be for peaceful protestors of all faith, spiritual, and ethical traditions to come together and do their thing while respecting others. I don't think that it was a coincidence that when the civil rights movement was most inspiring, it was rooted in a Christian conception of love that transcended religious boundaries and included everyone. We've lost that as a culture, and need it back.

      "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one" :)

  • Dave says:

    I think it is very dangerous for yogis to publicly align with one political view over another. First of all, yoga should be equally available to all and not selectively offered to a few. Secondly, I'm sure we could find violent, intolerant, and ignorant rhetoric coming out of any protest and it is a slippery slope for a yogi to "pick sides".

    • Carol Horton says:

      Hi Dave – I think that you are conflating several issues that are better off kept separate. I think that everyone would agree that yoga should be equally available to all. I think that everyone would also agree that we "could" find violent, ignorant rhetoric coming out of any protest.

      But, isn't that precisely a good reason for yoga practitioners to get involved? (at least in theory – of course, that is always up to the individual) –

      What if we had people with a strong enough practice to stay committed to nonviolence, civility, respect for all, and manifesting a positive, loving, compassionate attitude – even in a difficult situation – involved in more of our divisive political issues? I think that we'd all be better off.

  • Vision_Quest2 says:

    The opportunity for the sound bite (what politicians major in) and the photo op (do the math) are too strong … see

    In an ideal world, it would not be so.

  • Linda-Sama says:

    with all the commentary about occupying Wall Street, I've wondered why all these people aren't marching in the inner cities, taking back the streets from drug dealers and gang bangers. those are also the streets Wall Streeters have F'ed over so I would think that would be a more powerful statement. marching to the homes of millionaires in NYC? really? like Rupert Murdoch is really going to change his business practices one iota? like a Chase bank CEO is really going to take one dime less in pay? nice photo op but a lot of storm and fury signifying nothing.

    as an old protester from back in the day, my gut tells me that all this energy would be better utilized elsewhere.

    • Carol Horton says:

      Well, I'm all for more help for the inner cities. And I'm not in favor of drug dealers. But honestly, I do not think that they are at the root of our problems right now. They are a symptom.

      Personally I feel that OWS chose precisely the right target. Our political system is dysfunctional in large part due to the influence of big money in politics. Our economic inequality has multiple causes, but everyone agrees that most of the income gains over of the past several decades have gone to that tiny top percent. (It may not literally be 1%, but close to it.) And, it's clear that the finance sector turned into a big gambling racket that was at the heart of the 2008 crisis.

      I agree that the tactics may not work, but no one knows of any that necessarily will. So trying something (as long as it stays peaceful) is better than nothing.

      • Linda-Sama says:

        the political system is dysfunctional because the majority of people who can vote, DON'T VOTE. it''s common knowledge by now that in every election, it's a small percentage of people who vote. knowing that the majority of voting-age people in this country actually don't vote, I realized the other day that maybe if EVERY voting-age person in the Occupy whatever fests would vote, then maybe there would be REAL change in this country.

        in other countries people line up for HOURS to vote for change. Americans don't and we should be ashamed of ourselves. ASHAMED, but that is such an antiquated concept. people come up with every excuse NOT to vote AND voting laws should be changed on a federal level to make it easier to vote, such as having polls open 24 hours (since that is a one of the reasons people use, that they work during poll hours.)

        of course. in other countries there is usually a wider spectrum of candidates, something else this country should be ashamed about. Why don't we all get a type of ballot to fill out on smartphones — if people can tweet and blog and surf porn on their iPhones we should be able to fill out an absentee ballot and continue with the Occupation. Oh, I forgot….that would take some VISION, something this country has lacked for a long time. And don't even tell me how Obama was going to be the "change." He can't even stand up to the Republicans and Tea Baggers. Australians have been REQUIRED TO VOTE SINCE 1924….gee, what a concept. Think that would work in America, Carol? right.

        It's about walking your talk and we should be walking AND talking. Vote with your feet, your wallet, your consumer choices. When the opportunity rolls around every couple of years, then you vote or else shut the F up.

        • Carol Horton says:

          I agree with the need to vote and think that your suggestions are good. But after throwing myself into the 2008 Obama campaign, I'm feeling disenchanted for the same reasons you describe. I don't have a party that I feel good voting FOR. And I feel that even when good people get into the political system, they can't accomplish what they want to because of the big money influence.

          Voting is crucial but we also need system reform.