A few days a week I teach yoga to a diverse group of low-income elementary school kids, kids categorized as “at-risk” because of where they live, what they look like and how much money their parents make. So I’m always interested in discussions about the relationship between yoga and social service/justice/activism. Experientially, I understand the two activities go together like the right and left brain hemispheres or a partnership between an introvert and an extrovert. I’ve found that practicing yoga while engaging in social work fills in the gaps found in each domain. For example, I know I’m a better social worker and less likely to burn out when I feel good in my body, and doing yoga asanas everyday helps me maintain a state of confidence and serenity necessary to act in the hectic atmosphere of an elementary after-school program. Likewise, engaging with the kids I teach puts me up against my own comfort zones and expectations, ultimately making me a better yogini in the whole 8-limbed system sense of the term “yoga.”
But the skeptic in me (the insistent Anthropology major) also witnesses a contradiction between my personal trek to the yoga studio 3-4 x a week and my desire to equalize the playing field in our social system. Yoga studios have been proliferating steadily for years, in part because what they sell grafts well onto our culture of self-improvement and consumerism. Captain Awkward wrote an awesome blog about this, which you can read here: http://captainawkward.com/2011/01/14/the-state-religion-is-constant-self-improvement. She notes that for Americans, self-improvement is considered a social duty. To riff of of this idea, inculcating self-hatred through advertising creates a dynamic tension between an idealized state of being happy, beautiful, and successful (achieved via not only hard work, but consumption) and the reality of sadness, physical flaws and disappointment. It’s a tension that propels business profits in our economy. So the promise yoga studios make of toning students’ “whole self,” both body and mind, in a one hour and a half exercise routine can potentially fit easily into this already established paradigm of self-improvement via consumption. Captain Awkward refers to Judith Werner’s comment about the problem of our culture’s obsession with the individual’s feeling state, especially as relates to the feminist agenda:
I read a list yesterday of the whatever 11 resolutions all women need to make for 2011, and of course it was nurture your soul, find time for yourself, not let’s go out and rally for real political change, or let’s protest our banks’ behavior by taking our money out, or let’s establish a community garden so that we make sure our children, regardless of financial situation, are getting nutritious, fresh food. No, let’s light a scented candle and talk to our inner child.
I totally get Werner’s caricaturization of self-help New Year’s resolutions here. A cynical voice like this arises in my own head whenever I notice that the people in my yoga classes come from the same upper middle class, white demographic that I do, and I do not understand the festishization of crystals and flames. Unlike me, though, Werner sees relaxation practices and activism as contradictory, highlighting in her comment how a pragmatic belief system lies at the heart of self-help and yoga critics’ concerns. Werner doesn’t get how sitting in stillness will create real change in the physical world, unlike the obvious action of planting gardens and going to rallies. And similarly, Captain Awkward worries that cultivating contentment will keep us jailed in our own comfort zones and eradicate those states of anxiety that motivate a desire to change the gender, racial and class inequalities we find in our society. Upper class women, as a demographic with a lot of resources to share and power to change the world, might be derailed from political action by focusing only on their own personal transformation. The two don’t buy the view that transforming only the self will transform the world.
Enter my latest, favorite Buddhist/Yoga teacher here. Michael Stone is a Canadian teacher, psychotherapist, and Occupy activist who posts Facebook statuses like, “give up seeking enlightenment and try serving others for awhile.” He is adamant about Yoga and Buddhist Mindfulness practices’ place in movements like Occupy Wall Street that seek cultural change. Enlightenment, he says, doesn’t mean transcending to an unearthly plane. It’s about experiencing intimacy with the very real world that exists here, inside and outside of our bodies, and fluctuates in every single moment. On page 135 in his book Awake in the World he writes:
Yoga and Buddhism are not products. They are not subservient to pop values and trends. This practice of working with our bodies and minds can easily get neutralized in a culture that wants to turn everything into a product…Is a buddha one whose intention is to feel good? Or can the buddha reorganize the internal and structural values of a society? …We have a great opportunity to foster an engaged , grassroots dharma that works both individually and culturally through which we can look at situations of suffering carefully, and for a long time, and then take loving action based on what we can see when we bring creative awareness to a situation…
Turning our attention in on ourselves, the way we do when we practice yoga and meditation, is sometimes described as “experiential anarchy.” When we turn with disciplined intention to just being, in silence and without distraction, we may observe that our mental abstractions and thought patterns are constantly changing. When viewed in their raw state, our memories, judgments about ourselves and others, and fantasies about the future are found to be less solid than we may have previously believed, especially when contrasted to the constant presence of physical sensation or the steady rhythm of our breath.
Yoga and Buddhism are not subservient to pop values and trends, as Stone says, because they are practices that provide us the opportunity to witness this state of experiential anarchy. When our personal thought streams are revealed to be more empty than we previously experienced, the symbolic world of our cultural status quo becomes shaky as well. It is, afterall, within our own minds (and bodies) that our cultural value systems exist as reified truths (such as what success and beauty are, our sense of right and wrong, what should make us happy, etc.). As Stone puts it, “When we look into the layers of our conditioning we find the conditioning of our culture as well.”
Turning our attention in on ourselves, then, is turning our attention towards our culture, such as that constant stream of self critique encouraged by advertisements to make you buy things, or a competitive thought about a fellow yoga classmate that parallels our competition centered educational system and economy. However, while observation is crucial to changing personal and cultural patterns, insight practices that reveal truth to be tentative have the potential to excuse a kind of nihilistic escape from activity, which I think is what Werner and Captain Awkward worry about as relates to social activism.
But Stone is adamant that the lingering attentiveness to experience we cultivate through Yoga and meditation practices have the potential to foster wide-scale social change. By attending towards ourselves, our emotions, thoughts and sensations, we can better gauge how to act in a world that requires loving responses to our own suffering and the suffering of others caused by symbolic value systems that distribute privilege in an unjust way.
In a culture where we are constantly distracted from ourselves by entertainment, food, and an infinite possibility of products to consume, attempting to focus only on our breath and our bodily sensations may turn out to be as revolutionary as the mass protests popping up around our country that call for economic redistribution, political reform, and an overall shift in our social structure. This doesn’t mean, however, that we should do yoga and meditate instead of volunteering, picketing, protesting, and planting. Rather, we need these insight and body practices to help revive our creative energy, to help us find alternative belief systems, to help us learn to feel love and compassion more than our constantly active minds would allow. We need to change ourselves simultaneously as we change our culture. And we are actually better pragmatists when we tend to the motivating feelings behind our actions. Stone continues:
If we turn the term Yoga into too much of an idealistic state or utopian achievement, we will fail to see the intimacy of all things right here in our imperfect culture, aging bodies, distracted minds, and everyday challenges…Rather than thinking of transcendence as vertical, in Yoga, transcendence is horizontal. There is not a me that goes up or away or beyond but a collapse of that notion of “me” that puts the practitioner square in a relational field. I don’t leave the body, I move through it. I don’t leave the world, I find reality within it (127)