Some weeks ago, the yoga service organization Off the Mat into the World stirred up a flurry of controversy for showing up at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions with a team of eager volunteers to host The Huffington Oasis.
Their intention? To provide politicians and media delegates with “a refuge where they could come to reconnect with their bodies, minds and intentions,” and perhaps approach the “supercharged environment” of a political convention with more mindfulness and compassion. Sounds innocent enough, right? But the response they received from the yoga community was largely one of criticism and anger, as well-known bloggers and media organizations (including It’s All Yoga Baby, The Babarazzi, and even Salon.com) voiced disappointment and concern that Off the Mat’s campaign was at best ignorant and naive, and at worst a veiled scheme to rub shoulders with political big-wigs.
As someone who has long had an interest in both yoga and politics, I watched the YogaVotes campaign unfold from the voyeuristic lens of my Facebook feed with great interest, some skepticism, and a good bit of horror at the animosity and hostility coming from those who found the campaign distasteful. I tried to write an article about it several times, but found myself sitting with many more questions than I had answers. So, I decided, might as well put the questions right to the leaders of the campaign themselves.
Here is my interview with Off the Mat’s co-founder Seane Corn and executive director, Kerri Kelly:
Chelsea Roff: Hi Seane and Kerri. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me.
I wanted to begin by asking you about the mission of YogaVotes, which I read on your website is “to get more yogis out to vote in the 2012 election.” I think one question that has been on a lot of people’s minds is, how did hosting The Oasis at the DNC and RNC support that goal? Why did YogaVotes focus efforts on offering wellness practices to political/media delegates if your mission is to engage yoga practitioners in the coming election?
Seane Corn: The mission of YogaVotes is twofold: (1) to increase voter participation in this year’s election and (2) to bring yoga/mindfulness into politics.
YogaVotes is non-partisan effort meant to stimulate a conversation about the intersection between yoga and politics. The Oasis was an opportunity to offer yoga and other healing modalities to people who may or may not be familiar with these practices so that they could experience firsthand how self-care could impact their ability to be more effective and be more in tune with the communities they represent. It was our hope that having access to these practices could make a difference in an environment that is hyper-charged, separatist and often fiercely motivated by rhetoric that is divisive.
Being at the Oasis was an exploration on many levels. It was never meant to push a political agenda. It was to offer tools for healing and to watch, listen and learn.
CR: Many people have been critical of YogaVotes being a non-partisan initiative, and more specifically for “failing to address political structures that enable economic inequality, environmental devastation, racial and gender inequality” by serving delegates at the Republican National Convention.
Obviously, this hasn’t been the case with Off the Mat programs historically (I know programs like Global Seva and EYI were specifically created to address such issues), but how do you respond to those who essentially think it’s impossible to represent the values of yoga in the political sphere without being partisan? Why was it important to make YogaVotes a non-partisan initiative?
Kerri Kelly: YogaVotes is a voter service campaign. It is about creating an inclusive container for all yogis to make a conscious decision based on what they stand for, what’s at stake and who best represents their values and issues. If we are to be effective in empowering voters, we cannot tell them what to do or who to vote for. Instead, YogaVotes is seeking to understand why and how people vote so that we can support and ensure their participation.
This isn’t about influencing the direction of the campaign, but rather how we vote.
This does not mean the entire yoga community should be non-partisan. In fact, we want yogis get clear, informed and passionate about what they stand for.
CR: So it sounds like you all felt it was important to engage both with the yoga community AND the political world, as a way to perhaps create a foundation for dialogue between the two later on… Speaking of the future, do you think being non-partisan will prevent YogaVotes from taking a stand on major issues like gender inequality and environmental devastation in the future?
KK: How YogaVotes will evolve beyond this will depend on how the community shows up. If it becomes clear that this community wants to do advocacy work, then that might be how we evolve, if a constituency of voters based on yogic values emerges, so be it. But our move right now is to plant a seed, participate and learn…that will inform where we go in the future.
CR: That makes a lot of sense, Kerri. In many ways, I think YogaVotes has the potential to be for the yoga community what The League of Women Voters is for women – an organization that works to increase voter engagement, expand understanding of major public policy issues, facilitate dialogue between parties, and influence policy through education and advocacy.
KK: I would love for that to be the case. The League of Women Voters is an amazing organization and has been advising us on this campaign since it’s inception. So much of our strategy and approach stems directly from their experience.
CR: But it seems like there were a lot of people online voicing concern and disappointment that they weren’t seeing more meaningful engagement with the ongoing political process at the conventions. Why did you choose to focus efforts on offering wellness practices at the Oasis, rather than engaging with delegates about the values of yoga on the convention floor?
KK: I think what is unique about our work in this community, is that we are not just talking about yoga values – we are actively living them. That is what we wanted to demonstrate with The Oasis – so that delegates could experience the values and benefits of yoga first hand (this “train the trainer” approach has been a best practice for OTM for some time). Talk-based engagement is not our style. This is about action, not words. We want to engage with politics in a very different way. From our perspective, that IS meaningful engagement.
It’s also important to note that The Oasis was just one component of this campaign, but clearly one that got a ton of attention. Voter education and dialogue is a big part of YogaVotes, and yet our community is not engaging as much in that discussion. I hope that the strong feelings about what we did and did not do at the Oasis will encourage people to get more engaged and to look at how they would get involved in their own way. That is the conversation we want to be having…how can each and every one of us get involved in a way that is authentic and meaningful?
CR: Will voter education, advocacy, and dialogue around policy issues be a priority for YogaVotes in coming months?
KK: Yes. Already, hundreds of leaders have stepped up and are helping to shape the conversation around issues. This is a campaign of the community, so it is up to each and everyone to get clear about what’s at stake for them. YogaVotes is the container for this exploration. That is why we chose to begin with voter service, so that we could make space for everyone to get involved and informed in an authentic way. Being authentically informed means that we are grounded in our stance, contemplating issues based on unbiased information and making embodied choices from that place.
YogaVotes is both about taking action (through dialogue, advocacy and voting) AND and “how” we take action, applying the process of yoga to how we engage. It is an invitation to be aligned in body, mind and heart when we make decisions on election day.
CR: Seane, you said in one of your updates at the RNC that your intention was to “to confront separation with connection, fear with love.”
One of the criticisms that circulated in the media during the conventions was that “OTM naively walked into [the conventions] with fluffy, new-agey ideas about unity” that glossed over the very real (and important) differences between political parties. How do ideas about unity apply when we’re talking about politicians’ who hold fundamentally different perspectives on issues like climate change or abortion – perspectives, that of course, influence policy?
SC: To clarify, we chose to engage at the conventions in order to plant a seed. We did not come into this experience with the intention of immediately uniting politicians or establishing unity across issues. We had a very real expectation of simply providing a space for convention attendees to unplug and recharge so that they might engage at the conventions from a more connected and conscious place. We did what we do at OTM, we go into difficult, confronting places (i.e. our Global Seva Challenge work in Haiti and Uganda or our Empowered Youth Initiative in Los Angeles) and we listen, learn, breath and engage. The expectation was not that this would solve all of the very big problems that exist in politics today. Only that by inviting in the space, practices and values of yoga, delegates might show up and engage differently.
Personally, it was a very hard practice for me. I have deep issues around injustice and can be reactive at times.
Yoga teaches me that we are all connected and that issues like war, poverty, illiteracy, and violence exist because we act as if there is an “other;” an “us” and “them.” This is the opposite of yoga and is a collective misperception. If I want to be a change agent and participate in creating real healing and peace in the world, then I have to recognize the places in myself that perpetuate this limited belief of separation as well. I have to recognize (and heal) that the very thing I judge in others is something I too embody.
It is really hard to stay mindful, especially when I’m around people whose points of view are oppressive and harmful to other people. The practice of yoga helps me to be with my breath and stay present in conflict because I know how confrontational and intense I can be, which only creates more division (the very thing I’m trying to heal!).
CR: How do you practically confront separation with connection in the political arena?
SC: We are in the process of learning “how to confront separation with connection” and what the practical application of yoga looks like in the political arena. What we do know is that in this moment we have to engage, we have to embody what it is we are standing for and we have to go forward from a place of listening and love. Then we will know our next move.
CR: So it sounds like one of the major intentions at the Oasis was to offer politicians and members of the media practices to help them approach their work more mindfully.
But in many ways, the yoga community itself has become a microcosm of undesirable dynamics in the political world – as we’ve seen this year, there is no shortage power abuse, sex scandals, and financial corruption among people who do their sun salutations everyday. Given this, do you think that infusing the political world with yoga is likely to make politics more conscious and compassionate?
KK: Sure, the practice of yoga is missing or lacking in some places within our own community. And it is important for us to be in a practice of integrity before taking yoga out to the rest of the world. Advocating for yoga must be an authentic and honest reflection of our own practice and commitment to really make a difference.
Do I think it is possible for yoga/mindfulness to influence the political environment? Absolutely.
Will it be challenging and time consuming? Absolutely.
SC : Sadly I know many people who have a strong asana practices, and their behavior in the world is anything but mindful. I also know people who have never set foot on a yoga mat and live quiet lives filled with compassion, sensitivity and service. I do know that these practices can change lives. I’ve experienced it myself and have witnessed countless people become transformed as a result of a committed practice. Yoga can be a tool (amongst many) we use to develop understanding, connection and compassion.
I don’t know what will happen if consciousness and mindful practices are brought into an area where there is so much corruption, but I do know what happens if we don’t engage. It’s already happening. We’ll experience more division, more lies, more apathy, more poverty, more illiteracy, more stealing, and even more death. I want to take the chance, bring these practices in, and wait and see. That is why we developed YogaVotes. That is why this is just the beginning. That is why I am committed to this particular effort. Apathy is not an option for me; neither is the fear of failure or judgment. I will hold myself accountable for the mistakes I make, but I’m experienced enough to know that many of the “mistakes” I make often will lead me into a greater understanding and awareness and inform the quality and direction of this vision.
CR: I feel like I would be remiss not to address one of the biggest questions out there right now… Seane, do you have any aspirations to run for political office someday? Did your experience at the RNC and DNC sway you that direction?
SC: People have been asking me this a lot and the truth is that I don’t have much interest in running for office, nor do I believe I would be a particularly good candidate. I believe my path looks a little different and that I can serve better in other ways. I enjoy working in the field, especially with youth, and also creating the opportunities for service and leadership in my community for other people. I enjoy using the platform that I’ve been given to raise awareness and resources that can make a life-changing difference. OTM has many different projects that people can plug into and we’ve managed to raise over 3 million dollars to support grass root efforts worldwide. My service is driven by something very deep and personal, and I like the freedom that comes from the work I already do. I’m not certain I would enjoy the compromises that need to be made once in the role of public servant, but you never know…I do know my campaign slogan would be “Pick Corn!”
CR: Thank you both very much for taking the time to speak with me. Is there anything you’d like to add about the long term vision for YogaVotes?
SC: There is a lot we don’t know since this is the first time we are approaching this conversation. In our service work, we’ve consistently witnessed what happens to people and communities when there is a systemic breakdown. Issues like poverty, illiteracy, lack of opportunity, racism, classism, violence, etc. are symptomatic of a larger systemic problem. Engaging politically seems like a necessary and inevitable next step. I don’t know what will come from this engagement or conversation, but I am willing to initiate the opportunities for dialogue.
We were surprised that the dialogue that this inspired was more about us than about the election or issues or the state of politics. It feels limiting and more like the behavior that we’re seeing in politics right now: divisive, separate, personal. YogaVotes is simply asking how can we do this differently? How can we engage with one another and with politics in a way that is in alignment with our practice?
Photo 1, 2, 3, 5 Credit: THE HUFFINGTON POST/AOL 2012
Photo 3 Credit: YogaVotes