Monday, April 16, 2012

Yoga Isn't Changing American Society

how can we truly be surprised that “yoga”, as it has been packaged and sold in the West has not made much of difference in the way things work or rather don’t work in America, at least within the confines of the “system“? Yoga is still very much a white person’s extra curricular endeavor in America. Or something that occasionally happens at The White House. Or something people do on Comcast ON-DEMAND. All this yoga, and we’re not getting to the root of the problem, which is the healing of our collective relationship to Mother Earth.

Holistic healing is still very much a luxury in this country, with a few exceptions. It costs a lot of money to choose natural, homeopathic healing and food in this country, which is part of why everything is upside down and backwards. The easiest way to be healthy is to live simply and in accordance with the principals of Nature.

Those are the words of Holly Westergren, who used to run the wild ride of a blog Namaste, Bitches. I had something of a love/hate relationship with her blog, mostly because I could never decide whether she was cutting through the bullshit, or simply being a different flavor of yoga snob. Regardless, I love the flavor of her offering above, although I also found myself wanting to write a response to it as well.

Let's start with the first sentence. For most of its history, yoga was the practice of an elite few. The major teachings were kept secret, and the masses were kept away. In all the reading I have done, I have yet to find anything close to a social change ethic, or guidelines for a just society, in the teachings. While sutras in the Buddhist Pali Canon regularly talk of social relations, community structures, and the like, yoga teachings are primarily - from what I have seen - focused on individuals.

In that sense, it makes a lot of sense that "yoga has not made much of a difference" in the oppressive structures of American society. It hasn't really in India either, despite several thousand years of existence there. This doesn't dismiss the impact yoga has had on the lives of countless individuals. That can't be taken away from anyone. But yoga as a catalyst for social change hasn't been a very common theme.

"All this yoga, and we’re not getting to the root of the problem, which is the healing of our collective relationship to Mother Earth." Right. Exactly. In fact, I would argue that the Earth has been cut out of the vast majority of our religious and spiritual practices. Or has been added in like a condiment through fluffy songs, naive appeals, and heady rhetoric.

The thing is, how can those of us in the Global North countries heal that deep disconnection with the planet when we have done next to everything to separate our physical selves from it? Urban dwellers walking on concrete, driving cars, living in houses with every last crack closed off, doing our spiritual practices in pristine spaces equally closed off? Given how our economy has become structured, the bulk of rural dwellers aren't that much better off. Driving long distances into sealed off workplaces and then returning home near or after dark, only to wake up and do it all again the next day.

I'm not terribly impressed with the ecology inside of cars. Or modern buildings.

Lately, I have had fantasies of taking jackhammers to sidewalks, streets, and paved over inner city parks. Efficiency and profit are terrible mistresses, but frankly we've given ourselves over to them, forgetting our vows to the one we have been married to all along.

As a child, I remember playing in the lilac bushes that surrounded the yard of our house. Drinking in the aroma every spring; taking refugee in the canopy every summer. That was the love that ushers forth from interdependence.

It's always there, but so often we don't see it, feel it, at all. It's as if all those yoga postures and rounds of meditation haven't broken down the damn of disassociation. There are cracks all over the place though, to the point where perhaps I will witness the flood in my lifetime.

We can't, and really shouldn't want, to go back in time to what romantically might be called "simpler times." But we must bring forward the wisdom of those days, to the point where it doesn't matter if someone is doing yoga, or Zen, or praying to God.

Getting to the root really is about roots. And soil. And stones. And water.


Robyn said...

As I run out the door to sesshin at ZMM...where the natural world is quite present actually....

It is very clear that yoga, according to Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, is NOT about helping others in a social justice kind of way or any other way (this isn't just my reading of it. I had the good fortune to study the YS with Srivatsa Ramaswami - a student of Krishnamacharya's for two decades- and that question was put to him directly. He acknowledged that no, yoga is not about creating any kind of greater good). There are the yama-s, which speak of how to treat others but really yoga is an individual pursuit with an individualized goal. It quite different from the Bodhisattva vow - completely different in my view. I think the notion that we use yoga to become "better" or more useful or whatever in the world is a totally Westernized idea. Not a bad idea - just not what yoga has been about, traditionally.

I totally agree that caring about the state of our planet ends up being a privileged position, which is very painful and gives us lots of work to do if we are willing to take it up. But it is the true Bodhisattva vow - an impossible task that we wholeheartedly agree to master.

Have a great week, Nathan.

Unknown said...

Thank you for addressing this. Surrounded by yoga activists, I have always felt intuitively that yoga, while powerful on the individual level, is the wrong tool to instigate cooperative social change, but never known how to articulate.

Then again, doesn't it stand to reason that, with more people practicing yoga and experiencing the personal benefits, that those benefits would ultimately be reflected in larger society?

Jeanne Desy said...

I have some very depressed thoughts about America as an exemplar of greed coupled with individualism. It crunches everything that comes its way.

I remember sitting - hiding - in a snowball bush when it was in bloom. This led me to remember a line from Andrew Marvell's The Garden, "a green thought in a green shade". The rest of the poem makes me laugh now, it is very Romantic, yet . . .

Nathan said...


I support yoga practitioners being involved in activism. And even think it's fine and well for them to bring yoga practice into activist circles.

The problems come when they speak of yoga as being a cure all for social ills. This happens in a few different forms.

Some think simply injecting yoga into the middle of a social/political context will "make things better." So, they set up yoga classes in poor communities, or travel across the world setting up yoga classes and training in war torn nations, for example. Certainly, there are people who benefit from this kind of approach, but it's not really gonna transform systems of oppression.

The second approach I've seen are yoga activists who cobble together some set of ideas and ideals that they then pedal as "yogic" remedies for social ills. There's a lot of lip service, for example, given to poses like the Warrior series, and stories behind them. However, what gets emphasized is not the caste-bound duty of someone like Arjuna (of the Gita), but qualities like strength, courage, and fearlessness. Now, the warrior poses can be powerful practices for activists or anyone involved in dealing with large scale social issues. But what's being spread as "yogic" social teaching isn't, and I'd argue that the Gita's "warrior" story - to continue that thread - can be understood as much as an upholding of the oppressive, as it is an inspiration to freely act. The problem with so much of old Indian spiritual philosophy is that it's tangled with the caste system, and rarely sought to challenge that.

So, what would be wise in my opinion would be for yoga practitioners who are activists to do the following:

1. recognize that there are limits to any spiritual/religious practice on influencing the conditions of the world.

2. recognize that yoga, in particular, has little to no history of being a practice used to actively fight oppression and envision better societies.

3. to label whatever they are offering in terms of commentary something else other than "yogic teachings."

As a Zen practitioner, I'm much more inclined to emphasize Buddhist teachings than yogic ones when doing activist work. I just don't find much inspiration or guidance from yoga when it comes to addressing things like racism, corporate power, environmental destruction, and the like.

Finally, I agree with you that the benefits experienced by yoga practitioners individually do seep out into the broader society. However, the mistake many people seem to make is thinking it's enough to just "work on yourself." I have never agreed with that view, and so while there are issues with "yoga activism" that need to be looked at much more closely, the inspiration to be active change elements makes total sense to me.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the thorough reply. I didn't mean to say that I don't support activism by yoga practitioners and hope my comment didn't read that way. Simply felt the insistance of an inherent link between social activisim and yoga to be untrue.

Mumon K said...

Thanks for the post. I like you. I really do. I do have a remark or two or three...

I could never decide whether she was cutting through the bullshit, or simply being a different flavor of yoga snob.

This seems to be a variant of Poe's Law ( ) in play here.

"All this yoga, and we’re not getting to the root of the problem, which is the healing of our collective relationship to Mother Earth." Right. Exactly. In fact, I would argue that the Earth has been cut out of the vast majority of our religious and spiritual practices. Or has been added in like a condiment through fluffy songs, naive appeals, and heady rhetoric.

Well, yes but...allow me to go in a slightly different direction...From Holly Westergren...

The easiest way to be healthy is to live simply and in accordance with the principals of Nature.

We are bipedal lifeforms very closely related to chimpanzees. Like chimpanzees our "natural" state is to be both caring and loving and absurdly, catastrophically violent.

That crap ain't going away.

The point of all the practice is to make peace with that, not to banish it.

And by making peace with it, but not banishing, its worst aspects may be attenuated to the point of transcendence.

There's no Garden of Eden, never was, and never will be.

So I think I'm not in significant disagreement from you.

Linda-Sama said...

as the person for whose blog Holly wrote, I will add my two rupees:

yoga isn't changing American society because it is not as "mainstream" or "popular" as Yoga Journal would like us to believe. I've never believed it is despite all the statistics that yoga prop and yoga clothes makers like to throw out and I've written plenty about that.

and when we speak of "yoga" changing anything, what "yoga" are we talking about? A few yoga moves that someone does in the morning to unstiffen their spine or sitting on the mat and allowing all the shit that someone abused you with to come up and dealing with that? The tools of yoga (asana, pranayama, meditation) don’t have power on their own; their power comes from the way they are practiced. As I've heard Gary Kraftsow say, if you're an asshole who "does yoga" and nothing is changing for you, then you're just an asshole who does yoga.

Nathan said...

Mumon, I think I see your point about Poe's law. I probably could have left that sentence out entirely because my previous opinion of Holly is irrelevant anyway.

And yes, I'm right there with the idea that there's never been, nor will be, a Garden of Eden. In fact, wanting that is a hindrance to the more integrated experiences I'm trying to write about here.

Linda, obviously both of us have issues with the "yoga" label in general. And Kraftsow's comment makes total sense in this discussion. I think in some ways, it comes down to what motivates people. The bliss-bunnys don't have much interest in liberation. And liberation is really the underpinning of intelligent social activist work. Not spreading bliss, which is fleeting, and often superficial anyway.

Kōgen 光現 Dito-Keith said...


I often wonder how this happened. The pace of Soto Zen can be painfully slow- and even when acknowledged a teacher, there are few who can twist it into some money making, sexy scheme. How in the world did yoga get so spandex? Long live the swami!

As far as how practice relates to healing the planet, I'm with Derrick Jensen: our life style will never save the planet. Saving the planet will save the planet. Not eating chicken won't stop factory farming anymore than not beating children will stop child abuse. Stoping factory farming like you would stop someone from beating a child is what he is calling for. Occupy, organic farming, a careful diet, peeling up concrete- all very fun, good for the culture of ressitance, but nothing short of lifestyle-ism. Breaking windows of Starbucks-lifestyle-ism.

Systematicly dysmantiling one cell phone tower at a time, planning to knock out oil rigs in well developed missions, blowing up damns with a few good friends- and aknowleding that there will be bloody collateral damage, and that this is not a human-centric fight, well, maybe.

But who's willing to do it? Not me. I've resigned to learning how to farm sustainably, sitting zazen, and supporting all tactics- which means Occupiers and secret cells who will bring havoc.

Maybe when I can't drink the water anymore, I'll change my mind. But like Mumon was saying, there is peace to be made with our dying mother, too. I asked myself, before getting rifle (which I renounced-the 30round clip, the semi-automatic carbine) what do I want? I want the planet not to die.

Is that possible? Do I have the DNA to return fire as the target is engaged?

Or are humans a flesh giant, expanding from the dirt, ready to engulf the earth like some burning death star.

I have no idea. So I sit. Learn how to sew seeds, compost food, and amend soil. This is the easier way...

spldbch said...

You make a good point. Yoga is not really designed to be a venue for social change. I've never hear of "Yoga for the Cure." It does seem, like you say, to be a medium for individual change. I am not personally a yoga practitioner. Still, I hear people all the time talking about how they have benefitted from practicing yoga.

Nathan said...

Pigasus - its interesting you bring up the various points you do. I was just talking tonight with a fellow member of the earth-focused offshoot of Occupy we are both a part of. Basically, our group is focusing on spreading "the easier way." And yet we also acknowledge that there will probably need to be some of that more "messy" actions as well at some point. And with the state level oppression ramping up, the bloody might be close at hand as well - unfortunately. I personally aim and intend to be as non-violent as possible. But like you, I really don't know what it's going to take or whether humans will make it as a species.

Kōgen 光現 Dito-Keith said...

My apologies for all the errors- my computer has died, so I now use the community computer and It's one more thing I now do at neck breaking speed.

And I hear you loud and clear. We use bone meal, kelp, minerals, peetmoss- things extracted from the earth and shipped here- and the question pounds in my brain- is this enough?

Nathan said...

"We use bone meal, kelp, minerals, peetmoss- things extracted from the earth and shipped here- and the question pounds in my brain- is this enough?"

I don't know. Even though we know a lot damage has been done to planet, we really don't know what the planet can recover from. I have similar questions myself though.

Oh, and about Occupy - it might turn out to be one of the catalysts for systemic change. A few of us here have been talking about how Occupy might be similar to the weeds that appear after a piece of land is damaged. They're the first line of healing and regrowth. Without them, the land often can't regenerate to the point where it can sustain a much more diverse ecosystem.

I do agree that at this point, the critiques and actions of Occupy groups aren't enough. The analysis isn't deep enough, and the actions haven't become disruptive in the right places and circumstances. So, I guess we will have to see what comes.

Eco Yogini said...

Nathan, this is a very interesting blog post and the comments have been an excellent read! I don't have much to share- other than I agree with you.

What I love about my spiritual beliefs is that they are firmly rooted in Nature itself (being Pagan/Wiccan). :) Which suits me just fine.