Yoga might save us millions of dollars? Reality Check

First off, I’m sorry I’ve been absent from my blog lately. I’ve been buried knee deep in work all summer, and was forced to take a brief break as a result. But I’m back, and plan on writing regularly in the upcoming months! In fact, I couldn’t resist writing a post after reading an article circulating in the yoga community right now that left me feeling a bit appalled and distressed.

An article was recently posted on YogAnonymous titled, “ How Yoga Might Save the U.S. Trillions of Dollars, and  A Lot of Lives.” It’s already received nearly 22,000 facebook likes and the vast majority of people who have given comments obviously feel like this article is spouting the gospel. But I’m here to bring all the overly-enthusiastic yogis back to earth.

The main gist of the article is that yoga, as a practice of mindfulness, has the potential to decrease individual trauma and help solve social problems. The argument is that mindfulness practices help rewire our brains and enable us to cope with “modern stressors.” I think it’s relevant to include a couple of quotes from this article:

“The issues the country is facing – the massive dropout rate of school kids, substance abuse among all age groups, PTSD among veterans, the staggeringly high incarceration and recidivism rates – cost the country volumes in human potential, not to mention trillions in dollars. There are no single solutions, but the evidence suggests that some or all of these problems may be amenable to the practices that have been shown to redirect attention, improve concentration, increase self-control, and endow people with reliable and healthy coping mechanisms in the face of stress and trauma…

“The single common denominator is stress: Chronic stress, toxic stress, traumatic stress, primary and secondary post-traumatic stress. Trauma is endemic. The tentacles of stress and trauma run right through – domestic abuse, substances abuse, poverty, racism… And this is where the capacity to cope becomes highly relevant.”

Now, there is a ton of evidence from modern science to support this argument that mindfulness practices, like yoga, can help individuals cope with stress or trauma. Much of it is listed in the article. But before we all jump on the bandwagon because we think yoga is awesome, we need to slow down and really think about this argument and why it is flat-out wrong.

The entire argument is based on the idea that by helping people to cope with chronic stress and trauma, mindfulness practices can improve quality of life and enable the U.S. to regain trillions of dollars in lost funds due to the fact that people drop out of school and end up arrested. Yet this entire argument is based on assumptions of individual responsibility for the macro-level, structural situations the poor are born into. In other words, this entire argument is based on blaming the poor for their own victimization, what we in sociology call blaming the victim.

Essentially, it’s saying the reason people drop out of school or end up in jail is because they obviously just “don’t know how to cope.” So mindfulness practices can help people learn to cope with the chronic stress and trauma in their lives and learn how to become productive citizens. But you know what? Learning how to cope with trauma doesn’t eliminate or solve the real problem: that chronic stress or trauma has become normalized as a way of life in America. Things like school drop out rates, poverty, income inequality, racism, or in general society-level issues this article is talking about are directly related to structural inequalities that individuals, primarily the poor, face from birth. In other words, the issues are systemic, yet the article is trying to argue for individual-level solutions.

Simply teaching people to “cope” with problems caused by structural failure doesn’t solve anything. It acts like a stop-gap measure, mitigating the effects of much larger problems that can only be solved by structural change and activism. The practice of mindfulness through yoga, as much as we all love it, cannot change structural inequalities that ultimately cause chronic stress. And using yoga as a coping mechanism would only render people more complacent and justifies a system that is broken and failing them, supporting arguments that blame the poor for situations that are for the most part beyond their control.

Sure we all love yoga. Sure we all love mindfulness. And I realize many yogis, the vast majority of which are solidly middle- to upper- class, get a bit enthusiastic when it comes to sharing yoga with “disadvantaged populations.” It makes us feel so great, how could sharing yoga be a problem? Yoga for the people! But maybe yogis should try practicing mindfulness in addressing structural problems and actually understanding the causes of these society issues, rather than blaming the poor for their situation. Saying: “meditate and you’ll feel better and be more productive” is great when you live a comfortable lifestyle and have food on the table. It’s ridiculous when you don’t know whether you have enough for your next meal and are working multiple jobs yet still can’t make enough to get out of poverty.

And what just blows my mind? Traditionally speaking, yoga and activism for structural change are not incompatible, and in fact have been historically intertwined (I plan to write a post specifically on this later). In colonial India, it was bands of wandering yogis who took up arms against the British empire. They became so disruptive to colonial rule that Britain actually had to pass laws that forced yogis into cities and prevented them from carrying arms or organizing.

The practice of mindfulness in yoga isn’t about making things all rose-colored and pretty, it’s about developing the ability to deeply understand and be aware of the consequences and powers of our actions (or inaction). So rather than discuss how “yoga can save the U.S. trillions of dollars” by teaching people how to cope with a worsening quality of life, maybe yogis should start turning their mindfulness practices on actually understanding and solving structural and systemic problems with our society that are ultimately the cause of quality of life worsening.

Light, love, and… ❤ yoga

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