Sunday, September 2, 2012

Off the Mat Goes Off The Deep End With Yoga at the RNC and DNC

Someday, I might use my yoga teaching certificate, and I'll continue to practice and write about the practice. But stories like this one, covering yoga "activist" organization Off the Mat's jumping off the deep end, are exactly why I want nothing to do with the mainstream American yoga world.

The only thing more embarrassing than Clint Eastwood’s rambling and incoherent speech was the Huffington Oasis, an Off The Mat, Into The World collaboration with the Huffington Post. The Oasis offered up massages, yoga classes, organic food and smoothies for RNC delegates and media.

OTM stated their intention in an Elephant Journal article: “The Oasis was designed to provide the politicians, media, etc. a refuge where, instead of grabbing a Red Bull and burger between sessions, they could come to reconnect to their bodies, minds and intentions in an environment providing sustainable methods for grounding, health and healing in an otherwise supercharged environment….”

This week, they'll be doing the same thing at the DNC. Way to be bipartisan!

Mainstream yoga enthusiasts, who are mostly white and economically privileged, have a way of believing that anything that spreads "the message" of yoga is of benefit to the world. It's such a naive evangelical viewpoint that I find myself wondering if these folks are basically the liberal flip side to conservative, literalist Christians.

A few things about conventions. First off, they are basically meaningless coronations these days. Circuses designed to feed the populace with a bunch of feel good nonsense about their Presidential candidate, and feel bad nonsense about the other party's Presidential candidate. The voting for the party platform is essentially delegates rubber stamping what the elite already approved. Notice that anyone who attempts to buck the agenda in any manner (like those Ron Paul folks) are promptly shunned and marginalized in favor of "party unity." Nothing really important happens at these affairs, and so even the idea of offering a space for people to "reconnect" so that they can make "good choices" is empty. Because the average delegate's choices don't matter in the long run. The biggest thing for them is perhaps getting connected politically and gaining a job or some other position within the party.

Meanwhile, there are thousands of people outside these conventions every 4 years trying desperately to be heard. Because more and more, the issues that impact everyday people and the planet are completely marginalized, ignored, or maligned by both the Democrats and Republicans. I was one of the protesters at the RNC in 2008. The convention was a mere 9 blocks away from my apartment, close enough that I had helicopters flying overhead 24/7 for a week. We could have used some yoga practice. Massage. Healthy food. Anything to help us deal with the 3000+ police in riot gear and military vehicles staring us down and watching our every move. Our messages - widely diverse, and sometimes from opposing sides - were real. Full of life. Not the bullshit lies and propaganda being offered inside the conventions, and shuttled out to the masses by every mainstream media outlet imaginable. The military veterans against the wars, and those supporting them- both could have used some grounding, breathing, and something to eat and drink. The peace activists. The Poor People's movement activists. The environmentalists. The civil liberties activists. The homeless folks. Hell, even the people who were randomly passing by, the watchers - even they could have used some kind of support in that kind of hostile environment.

However, I have no illusions that a few days offering yoga or meditation or organic food is going to spark a revolution. Create the kind of systemic change this country, this world really is in need of. Suggesting that such an offering is anything other than a short term soothing balm is to trivialize practice. To trivialize what takes decades to bring about in individuals committed to the practice. What OTM and Huffington Post are doing is basically offering some pampering to people who are already being pampered. Because they are needed in order to make the circus look real and legitimate.

Furthermore, and this is something that yoga evangelists frequently miss, there is an assumption behind OTM's efforts that convention delegates, media folks, and even the candidates themselves are in need of "learning" about "the gifts" of yoga. When the reality is that some of them already practice yoga, meditation, Christian centering prayer, mindfulness, or any number of other things that help them stay balanced and grounded. And others in situations like a political convention won't pay attention or give a shit about such practices no matter how many fancy asanas are trotted out to entertain them with.

The way I see it, if you are going to do activism, go for the systemic roots. And if you are going to do service, find people who are actually in need. Lord knows that's really not a difficult task. How OTM and Huffington managed to bungle both is an understandable consequence of unexamined, privileged narratives, but still a little surprising in magnitude all the same. Perhaps this can be of service to other groups though of what not to do. There's always that lesson, if nothing else.


Jeanne Desy said...

On my good days, I feel magnanimously that any meditation is better than none, that once people sit even once they know something is there, available somehow. On my bad days I resent the kind of thing like "Express Mindfulness Stress Reduction" at my health club. There is no express to awakening. And I see so much reductionism of Buddhism places like Facebook; but of Christianity too, of course. Commercialism is the worst. Everyone is seeking happiness, I know, but often so wrongheadedly.

NellaLou said...

A funny thing happened at the RNC convention.

There were some Occupy protesters corralled in a specific area. They were not going to be moved but were running out of food. Some RNC delegates went inside and brought food out to them.

Nathan said...

Odds are that someone, or a small group of someones, had some experience that benefited them during the "Oasis" sessions at the RNC. I can see that, and still feel it's not a great use of money, resources, and time overall.

"Some RNC delegates went inside and brought food out to them." Seems like those delegates were responding in the moment beyond political affiliation and views.

Ji Hyang said...

Respectfully disagree--
I know meditation teachers of color and yoga activists who went-- bearing in mind that it would not be easy, but that perhaps service is the most powerful teaching...

Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.

As a Zen master once said, "Even a penny has two sides...."

Nathan said...

But what does it mean to "serve" in this context? I keep seeing comments like "knowing it wouldn't be easy" and from Corn's reflection "I learned a lot about my judgments," and some other things I'm forgetting right now. It feels like it's more about personal growth of the volunteers, not those being served.

Nathan said...

I will say this. My reaction would be somewhat different if, for example, they had gone in to bear witness to the convention. To be a calm presence in the middle of the storm. Or if they had chosen to offer barebones asana and meditation practice. Just giving simply to those interested, without all the expensive accessories and pampering. It's the form of what was/is being offered that I question as much as their presence.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to be pedantic but every pic I see of OTM events seems to feature bendy folk...Er... ON yoga mats. Mission self-destruct I'd say...

Ji Hyang said...

One more on this and I turn it over to the universe--

MindfulVotes is imho a valuable organization and they were staffing the oases-- not to pamper others, not to serve themselves, but to *actually* serve.

Anyone who knows Kyodo Williams well would agree that she is not a teacher who caters to the dominant paradigms. And she led the MindfulVotes delegation to Tampa. More on them, here:

Hopefully everyone involved-- in any authentic encounter of the other-- experiences growth. The same time that we help others we are also helping ourselves. The healing goes both ways...

For those of us who believe our sanghas should directly engage with the world, let's stay open to the diverse ways this may happen. Remember the stories of the cosseted prince who saw a practicing person on the street, and developed a great question.

Nathan said...

Yes, Kyodo Williams has never struck me as someone to "go along" with the system.

Still, with all the suffering in the world, all the people and places in need of service, and the fact, again, that very little of substance actually happens at these conventions, it just doesn't make sense to me.

If you see my view as limited and cynical, so be it. There's always the possibility for great surprises and unexpected healing/transformation. I would never deny that. However, I'm just not buying this kind of focus in a world where so much is burning, and so many are profoundly struggling. Perhaps history will prove me wrong.

In the meantime, if our sanghas enter into social engagement, they best also be open to legitimate critique, disagreements, and questions. I've experienced this myself as our sangha has entered into the battle over a proposed anti-same sex marriage amendment to our state constitution. Many of the question and concerns from members of the sangha about how the community would stand publicly, and also how we would address the issue internally were helpful in strengthening the effort.

Audra said...

Love this post. I am completing my teacher training right now, and had been torn about whether to pursue it for ages because, as you say, I am so sick of mainstream yoga culture and its complete ignorance of the matrix of privilege and oppression in which we live. It's ludicrous to think that three days of offering massages, smoothies, and a place to charge your phones is going to help someone make "better decisions." These groups that they were "serving" are actively against feminism. anti-racism, etc.., movements, and this will not change overnight. I really liked the comment or post at The Babarazzi that pointed out they will likely just make more clearheaded decisions about how to continue pushing the income dispartiy up and up and up... I'm all for remembering that people are people, but we can do that without idly sitting by. Gandhi and King would never have thought that non-violence or compassion were about "serving" those who are oppressing them and hoping someone woke up to their ignorance. But I guess the thing is that most mainstream yoga practitioners do not realize their oppression -- or are the upper middle class / upper class whites who benefit from privilege.

Anonymous said...

You can not make money as •Perform Yoga/Facials/Massage at the DNC. These are only volunteer postions. Tips only if anything at all. Most of the Massage Therapist, Estheticians, majority of the Yoga Instructors and Meditation Teachers.

Most Massage Therapist working at a convention event, usually get paid at least $25 per hour, + Tips, + Expenses , parkling and have regular breaks. The want you to work at least 18 hours.

Full time hours for a Massage Therapist during the week is 22 hours max. That is strenous work. People are being taking advantage of service industries good nature. Some of the Yoga Instructors are paid. 40k went to huffing post to help set this up. The make up people are getting paid through a Makeup sponser.

Nathan said...

The payment issue has been noted by many. It does sound like those offering services there are doing so freely, not in a coerced manner.

I just read that Kyodo Williams calls this effort "visionary." She also recognizes that it has some baggage and questionableness attached to it.

In my opinion, it would be visionary if they took a version of this to the halls of Congress and had a continual presence during the next legislative session. As I wrote in my post, the conventions are so devoid of substance that it’s very difficult for me to take this effort seriously. However, something like a Congressional Yoga and Meditation project – that I could take seriously.

Unknown said...

Nathan, i've tried several times to post a comment here, but Blogger is not participating.

here's another try:

hi Nathan,

i have to respectfully disagree with no only your assertions, but your overall view. and i more than welcome pushback and critique, but this isn't being held in a respectful way, and i think that is overall what this is about: we have to find a different way to meet and navigate our opposing views.

i don't know about the best use of money and resources. i've spent a lot of time scraping money together to bring mindfulness practice to folks that "need it most" and then i got over myself. because while i was teaching incarcerated youth that were self-destructing in the prisons, i was also sending them back into a system of such pain, that they would need years of deep practice to begin to counter what was coming at them. so teaching practice to the correction officers became a strategy. but then the administration resisted such woo-woo, so teaching them was a priority. and so day the administrator of the system turns out to be a practitioner and {poof} the whole thing can shift.

we have to recognize that there are folks that are really suffering on the ground in such a way that practice can benefit them. we also have to realize that shit slides down the mountain, so that if we never try to stem the tide that's coming from the top, we're just going to be digging ourselves out.

we're all suffering, but some of us are positioned in such a way that our suffering becomes other people's misery. i don't agree with all of how things are going down, even as i am hear. but if i close myself off to the possibility, nothing moves. been there, done that.

i don't know what will emerge. neither does Seane or anyone at OTM or HuffPo for that matter. and we all have our agendas, no doubt. i can speak for mine: i work well with a shovel, but if there's an opportunity to stem the tide of what keeps sliding down on all of us, i want to look past judgments of who "needs" and who doesn't, who is worthy and who isn't, and look at the whole situation for where systemic change might be. it was once unthinkable that we should "entertain" wealthy white people that were potentially part of the problem of slavery in America, but it's precisely what Frederick Douglass did: he represented possibility and connected person-to-person, heart-to-heart because somewhere he, we, i trust that while we advocate for change on the political level, deep change comes when hearts AND minds are changed. not either or, but both.

and, as i said on Babarazzi (sp?) comment, if you can get us convention credentials, we'd bear witness with the best of them.

for now, we'll serve with eyes wide open, engaging curiosity and learning as we go.

i'm headed back to the #Oasis2012 to see if/where there's an opening alongside Sharon Salzberg and the folks that roll through there looking longingly at the yoga room that haven't given themselves permission to drop the posing and get into a posture yet.

maybe it will happen today.

let's keep the dialogue open, respectful, compassionate...and fierce.

beings are numberless, i vow to save them all

(and that's from the Zen tradition's Four Bodhisattva Vows, in case anyone decides it's just me being evangelical)

(rev.) angel Kyodo williams


Unknown said...

i also meant to greet Ji Hyang and the rest of those folks in this discussion. please forgive me.

for the record, it is OTM that received $40K from HuffPo, funds which will go towards OTM's programs (even Seane is volunteering) and i, for one, think their programs worthy, and as they are a volunteer network, there is nothing either unusual or off-color about this.

stay awake. keep the conversation going. keep it respectful and get informed.

big bow to all.

Nathan said...

Thank you for stopping by Kyodo.

I do hope that some of the folks discussing this in different places online drop the money argument. Because when it comes down to it, $40K isn't that huge of a donation. It sounds big, but I know how quickly that level of money gets eaten up by the needs of non-profits.

I'm more interested in what's being done, how it's being framed, and what has been left unexamined.

Anonymous said...

Why not let people do as they please? I have met such incredibly idiotic people on a daily basis, and while I could certainly jump in and say "hey! WAKE UP! you dumbass...", for the most part a message like that doesnt really get through. The sleeping sheep want to stay tucked in comfortably behind their woolen eye-glasses. Will they come to their senses in time to salvage the rest of their lives? Who knows? We cannot force people to wake up, no matter how beneficial it may be for the rest of the world.

Then again, some people are professional critics... as an occupation. Fame and fortune and all that, I suppose.

It really depends on what you want, how you plan to get it, and what you are willing to give up along the way. There is a limited amount of time and energy in a given lifetime.

Nathan said...

Sometimes, you have to say something. Even if it has zero impact on the people you are speaking about or to. Maybe the positive impact will happen with someone else or some other, unrelated group.

Given the amount of stupid or questionable stuff going on in the yoga and Buddhist "worlds," I could write a critical blog post every hour on the hour. Probably would make some money doing so, but what an awful life that would be.

In my daily life, I stay silent and let be more often than it may appear on these blog pages. I'm guessing some of the other readers responding here are the same.

raechel said...

I'm so happy to have discovered your blog. This is spot-on. Good to know there are other critical, Leftist yogis out there.