Is Yoga Political?

By Angela Jamison

Yogis and suits unite at Occupy Wall Street. (image via it’s all yoga baby & yogaholiday.com)

This week at the Yoga Journal, Neal Pollack wrote that “Yoga knows no political party or ideological affiliation. Politics, like everything else on this precious Earth, are temporary.” A commenter named Paul wrote in the comments of Monday’s lead post at YogaDork: “I don’t see a group of non-traditional yoga-ers in any way representative of the so called “yoga community.”

Politics is the field of collective rights and responsibilities. I would submit that the political enlightenment which initiated in the mid-1600 in Europe (with Locke, Voltaire, Spnioza, Newton, etc) is still at work in us. Political enlightenment pushes two envelopes: (1) the definition of who gets citicenship-type rights and (2) the definition of social responsibilities. Over time, the envelopes have enfolded tribe, nation, (for some) species, and (for a few) planet in the definition of “we.” These comments address how that political process affects polities, and how it’s historically affected the definition of who gets to do yoga.

Contemplative practice often reveals that nothing is inherently anything. Even if it didn’t, group conversations are easier if they stay non-metaphysical. Cutting back on abstractions and theoretical assumptions means that people from different religious/cultural/intellectual backgrounds can understand each other better in conversation. Thus I do not ask (with Mr. Pollack): is yoga INHERENTLY apolotical? Just: is it apolotical? To keep the answer grounded in experience, I’ll sharpen that up even more: Is yoga HISTORICALLY apolitical?

Maybe in some ways. I’m sympathetic to the apolitical argument. It goes like this: Yoga is in the transcendence business. Think like the Cosmos. The rest is and always has been small potatoes.

Now, there is a growing, healthy tendency for critical-minded yoga people to get very pissed off at transcendence teachings. We counter with the message of immanence: Here! Here! Now! Now! Relationships, Physicality, Food, Form! Fine, fine. But now that immanence is having its day in western yoga, let’s not throw the transcendence out with the bathwater. Or, phrased even worse: you can transcend your cake and eat it too.

To the question of whether yoga is historically apolitical, I can only speak casually to my own lineage. I’m a student of the direct students of Pattabhi Jois; and for extra edification and clarity of transmission I study with senior a senior Iyengar teacher, a senior student of TKV Desikachar, and others whose line goes directly to Krishnamacharya. Nobody knows what yoga is. But I do at least know my family line; I teach the way my teachers in the tradition of Pattabhi Jois taught me to teach, and only because they support me in doing so. Lineage gives me a sense of history and accountability, and helps me answer hard questions like: Is yoga political?

WWKD? WWSKPJD? Q.E.D.

Yes, it’s apparently political. I’ll start from the root. The mula guru of my lineage was outspoken and crazy progressive in his politics. This singular man, T. Krishnamacharya, took radical political initiatives. If he hadn’t, would we even be here?

Krishnamacharya went to work for Wodeyar, a prince who in the early 1900 was in some ways more politically enlightened than Mitt Romney (Wodeyar championed public health and, if I am not mistaken, was one of the first Indian politicians to support some form of birth control for women). He pushed the envelope of the teachable to encompass women and foreigners, and wrote the radical book Yoga Makaranda in a passionate effort to legitimate yoga practice (previously considered punk ass nonsense) among everyday people. Word is people said he was crazy.

From there I only know about my own branch of the lineage – that of Pattabhi Jois. What I know is mostly conversational – part of the oral tradition I have recieved – but what does seem clear is that SKPJ took Krishnamacharya’s envelope and expanded it further in some places. (Some say SKPJ convinced his guru to expand that envelope in the first place.) More foreigners and more westerners were given the teachings, and eventually he broke with his rumored refusal to teach Muslims (to this day, Mysore city is extremely segregated, and there is significant tension and oppression between Hindu majority and the large population of Muslims). In time, and especially with my teacher Sharath’s leadership of the ashtanga yoga lineage, more women would be empowered as senior teachers.

At this moment, the environment is coming online in my lineage as a zone of political responsibility. The week before last, Sharath spoke to students gathered in Mysore, saying that instead of having a third child, he will plant a tree. He told the students to plant trees and take care of the environment, and said that this is part of yoga.

The popular argument that yoga is apolitical comes not from an understanding of modern yoga history, but from a mistaken grafting of “yoga” on to the definition of “business.” BUSINESS is apolotical. Politics in America are one part culture wars and three parts class warfare. And for godsakes if you want to make money, you do not participate in class warfare.

Well, we have a long way to go with expanding the class envelope. At some point, Jois began saying “Yoga is for EVERYONE. Except lazy people.” (Lazy people being not the hardworking lower castes but western leisure folk who didn’t practice consistently.) Formally, the SKPJ lineage crossed the caste line in recent years by serving the untouchable class with its support of orphanages in Mysore. I do not know if any non-Brahmins study directly in the lineage (I am largely ignorant about the interaction of class and caste in India).

So… everyone? To oversimplify greatly (and risk annoying my sociologist ex-colleagues), the central factor in being politically disenfranchised today is not race, gender, or sexual orientation, but class. Enfranchising poor people requires more than an open door policy though; it actually takes deliberate action and structural change. Think about it. The GOP’s voter suppression project works by targeting people who don’t have ID’s or information or polling station access because that’s part of being POOR. Reversing this trend takes tremendous effort to support poor people in getting to the polls. Something similar is true of opening yoga practice up to poor and oppressed people. Two approaches: go teach in poor schools, prisons, community centers. Or, more obviously, don’t just bring yoga to oppressed people but name and contest the oppression itself. Act against poverty and class tyranny. Onoe could do this, for example, by publically recognising that Romney has one or two positions that are less politically enlightened than Obama (and that, as one oppressive result among many, happen to make it more unlikley that poor people would ever do yoga). I speak of concrete positions in policy areas where presidents actually DO things: college funding, the tax structure/regulation, and the importance of health care for the poor.

But back to if yoga is political. I can’t answer this question in a general way or speak to the essential nature of yoga. But in my lineage, in recent history, yeah. Our tradition is tremendously political. Turn on; tune in; drop out? As if.

For those who read this far: thank you for your yoga practice. Because it does affect the world that we, together, inhabit. And thank you for your time – I don’t want to take more of your energy than I need to communicate this simple idea.

References: Read David Gordon White’s Sinister Yogis to get a sense of how much need for activism was on Krishnamacharya’s hands when he wrote Yoga Makaranda.

And check out Mark Whitwell’s recent comments on gender in the Krishnamacharya lineage:

 

Angela Jamison is the owner and founder of Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor, a traditional yoga school. A former sociologist, she now teaches yoga at the University of Michigan. She has practiced ashtanga yoga since 2001, daily since April 2003.  She travels annually to Mysore, India, to study with her ashtanga teacher, R. Sharath Jois. She served two apprentices with senior ashtanga teachers Dominic Corigliano and Jorgen Christiansson, and is Level 2 Authorized by the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute. She meditates daily, and takes annual silent retreats with secular meditation teacher Shinzen Young. She blogs at www.ashtangaannarbor.com/wordpress and at www.insideowl.com. Her husband Rob Jansen, their cats Zelda and Lynxx, and Angela live together in Ann Arbor.
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