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Off the Mat & Into the Thick of It: yoga at the RNC & DNC

Friday, September 7, 2012 by Marianne Elliott

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Kerri Kelly, of Off the Mat, Into the World, teaches yoga at the Huffington Post Oasis at the DNC

Some of you already know I’ve been involved with Off the Mat, Into the World for the past four years. As someone who is passionate about justice, and who sees that central government can – and does – play a critical role in either obstructing or enabling greater social and economic and justice in the community, I was encouraged by Off the Mat’s willingness to get engaged with the political process in the US this year in the form of YogaVotes.

The goal of YogaVotes?

To awaken a new demographic of mindful voters—sparking higher voter turnout among the 20 million Americans who practice yoga.

As Seane Corn has so often said: awareness, connection, and participation are core elements of yoga – and they can be core elements of how we organise ourselves as democratic societies. This, as I understand it, is the intention of YogaVotes:

  • Firstly, to encourage Americans who practice yoga to vote, and in doing so to consider how their yoga practice – and the values and principles that underpin it – might inform their vote; and
  • Secondly, to bring the practices and values of yoga and mindfulness to the political process.

Which is how Seane, and my friend Kerri Kelly, ended up teaching yoga at the Republican National Convention. And how they ended up on the receiving end of some strong – and snarky – criticism.

After years working in the aid and humanitarian sector, I’m extremely familiar with snark. It’s pretty much the modus operandi of the aid sector. But I’m not a fan. Snark is criticism plus sarcasm. It’s dismissive and divisive, and neither of those are easy to align with the core values of yoga.

One yoga blogger said of OTM’s role at the conventions:

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.

Another critic wrote:

In closing, it is the belief of The Babarazzi that Sean Corn’s publicity stunt is one of the greatest and most awesomest fuck-ups mainstream yoga has ever accomplished … and could only come from the minds of silly heads bent on creating more silly head money.

Wow. Them’s some angry words. Some divisive and sarcastic words.

Here’s the thing. I think there are important questions to ask about whether there is a place for the practice of yoga in the modern Western ‘democratic’ system. I think there are valid questions to ask about whether the system is so profoundly flawed that we might choose not to engage with it at all, and instead begin a movement for a new – truely engaged, unified and participatory – system of communal decision-making.

And I think that we can have that debate without attacking each other. I think we can and should approach these issues with intellectual rigour and careful critique. And I think we can ask those questions with humility, generosity and kindness. The same blogger said, in a comment on her own post:

If yoga wants to play in politricks, which it does by throwing spa-parties for Conservative conventions, than it has entered the political discourse, and made itself available to being dissected in the rich language and discourse of political theory and op/ed.

I agree. So I’m going to put aside for a moment the snark, and try to address the real concerns. Because there are some and they deserve serious consideration.

One of the key criticisms in that post was that there was no need for the provision of access to mindfulness practices, in this situation, since everyone at the convention is already so privileged that they have access, by the very nature of their social and economic status.

It’s an important point. But it relies on a specific and relatively narrow definition of ‘access’. And it makes certain assumptions about who might be at a political convention, assumptions which I have no way of testing. Is everyone at the convention rich? Even the interns? Have they all come from privileged backgrounds in which taking time out to care for their body, mind and spirit would be culturally encouraged, or even accepted? What barriers, other than poverty and political disenfranchisement, could stand in the way of someone taking up a personal mindfulness practice?

There is certainly an argument to be made that limited resources need to be prioritised for the least well-resourced communities. One interesting feature of the set-up at the Oasis at the RNC and DNC, however, is that Huffington Post paid OTM $40k to provide yoga classes. OTM was able to provide the classes through the contribution of volunteer teachers so the $40k could be re-directed into other programs, such as the Empowered Youth Initiative. So the provision of these services at the conventions actually constituted a fund-raising activity for OTM, funds that will be spent on programs that do the sorts of things many critics of the Oasis say OTM should be doing instead.

As Babarazzi said:

When a yoga practitioner ventures into the territory of homelessness, poverty, and prisons in order to teach the traditional practice of asana and meditation, this practitioner is making accessible something that was previously not.

The irony is that Seane Corn, and OTM generally, became convinced of the need to engage with the political process as a result of spending many years venturing “into the territory of homelessness, poverty, and prisons in order to teach the traditional practice of asana and meditation”. What they realised, was that for change to happen they needed to engage with the power structures that created and recreated the situations in which they found themselves continually playing a ‘service’ role.

YogaVotes, and the presence of Off the Mat, Into the World yoga teachers at the RNC and DNC, evolved out of many years of Off the Mat’s work in and with communities who experience the sharp end of policies on poverty, justice, health and education. And Off the Mat continues to put a lot of energy and resources in to programmes like the Empowered Youth Initiative – which includes ‘a process of mutual inquiry with the young people they wish to serve.

I agree very strongly with one commentor on the Babarazzi post who said:

Political action aligned with yogic values, in my mind, means addressing structures that enable economic inequality, environmental devastation, racial and gender inequality etc to grow and persist… we should not confuse yoga service efforts with political action. They are very different beasts and it is dangerous to lead yoga practitioners to think that political action is sharing yoga class with kids from the hood while they have no awareness of the structures that create the hood in the first place or how their daily lives contribute to that system.

Yes! This is an incredibly important point, and the kind of issue that I would love to see us debate – with respect, compassion and humility – within the yoga community generally. And this is being debated and discussed in the OTM community.

This is why the Empowered Youth Initiative includes ‘a process of mutual inquiry with the young people they wish to serve, why it ‘focuses on exploring the dynamics that surround disenfranchised urban and suburban youth in the United States’ and why it ‘aims at addressing the larger context.’ Because:

The more we as conscious activists can understand this larger socio-economic and political context, the more effective we can be in serving this community.

Given my own experiences with human rights and social activism – ranging from working directly with disenfranchised communities to developing and implementing national advocacy programmes – I know it takes a lot of different change levers, activated at a lot of different levels, for unjust power structures and systems to be altered.

We can ask critical questions about the political and power implications of our choices of strategy. We can stay in open, humble conversation about what we are and are not really achieving. We can learn, from each other and from our own mistakes. And, as yogis, I hope we can do this in a spirit of kindness. Because if there is one comment, in all of this, that I disagree with most strongly – it is this – from a commentor on Babarazzi’s post:

We can’t be so naive as to think simple kindness has any effect in this situation.

I’ve seen the power of simple kindness in some of the most violent and hate-ridden settings imaginable. It is not a cure-all, and it is not an excuse for not doing careful analysis of the power dynamics into which we may be wading. But it always has an effect. Always. And often it has a much greater effect that we credit.


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One Response to "Off the Mat & Into the Thick of It: yoga at the RNC & DNC"

  1. Robin Borrud says:

    Thanks Marianne. I love hearing your perspective and thoughts. I walk away from this blog with more questions and that is always a good thing.

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