An Argument for “Spiritually Engaged Activism”

“Over time, it became clear to me that there’s a problem with the question ‘What can I do.’ The problem is the word ‘I.’ By ourselves, there’s not much we can do… The right question is ‘What can we do to make a difference?’ Because if individual action can’t alter the momentum of global warming, movements may still do the trick. Movements are how people organize themselves to gain power—enough power, in this case, to perhaps overcome the financial might of the fossil fuel industry… Movements are what take 5 or 10 percent of people and make them decisive—because in a world where apathy rules, five or ten percent is an enormous number.” ~Bill McKibben (“The Question I Get Asked the Most“)

I recently saw a new post by Carol Horton, the second in a series on Yoga International called “Re-imagining Yoga: Holistic Wellness, Social Connection, and Spiritual Revitalization.” In the most recent post on Spirituality & Social Justice, she describes what she called the experience and rise of what she terms “socially engaged spirituality.” I’ve been sitting with her words for several days now thinking about this “re-imagining” of the practice, and for a number of reasons it just hasn’t been sitting well with me. I want to talk about why.

Horton introduces the experience of “socially engaged spirituality” by sharing a story of her youth when, in the first grade, her class was brought into a gymnasium to hold hands and sing together a freedom anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.” It’s a lovely tale, and one she argues embodies the hopeful, spiritual possibility she feels may be developing in some yoga circles, particularly in the yoga service field, described as “people who have launched successful organizations dedicated to teaching yoga in prisons, supporting recovery from addiction, and so on.”

I agree that the growing awareness in yoga circles of social justice concerns is promising. It is wonderful to see so many people “seeking to deepen their practice by engaging more deliberately with the world—rather than escaping, renouncing, or transcending it.” As she mentions, “to see this happening on the scale that it is today… is unprecedented.” This is something to be hopeful about, and I am happy this conversation and service work is growing. As McKibben notes, “It’s the right question or almost: It implies an eagerness to act and action is what we need.”

But while I applaud those engaging in yoga service I also feel that service work in yoga is  something we need to be critical of, for a number of reasons. As I have written about before, there are often problematic elements to the organizational structures of groups involved in the yoga service field (often through no fault of their own). The nature of the industry is often not set up to support more radical approaches than what Horton I think appropriately calls a “socially engaged spirituality,” as the model of the industry is often based on a form of charity work driven by white middle-class communities, in ways that are rooted in the colonialist history of philanthropy within the construction of the United States, rather than more radical, overtly political models.

I do want to acknowledge there are groups of socially engaged spiritual yogis out there doing political, activist work and engaging in social justice beyond the mat. You do exist, and I commend you. Just to clarify, this post isn’t about these people, who I think are creative and bold individuals (those of you doing this type of work know that you can often be treated with disdain or virulent sanctioning by those in the yoga world who find this work “unyogic” and “judgemental” because of the political bent). More importantly, I think it’s important to recognize that while many yogis want to believe they are socially engaged in radical ways, these people are rare in the yoga world, even in the yoga service world, in part because mainstream yoga often promotes a more individualized, complacent positivity that is constructed as at odds with political engagement.

This post addresses the majority of service work in yoga that is not overtly political, that is not seeking to engage in collaborative movement building and organizing both within but also outside yoga circles, and which often uses a “socially engaged spirituality” to justify their own personal commitment to social justice without engaging in actions that are radical enough to promote more effective and widespread change beyond the individual level. To those folks, please listen, and I hope you take this post as a plea to think deeper about what social justice means and why spiritually informed social engagement demands an active, political, and collaborative approach.

The Dangers of a “Socially Engaged Spirituality”

What exactly does it mean to have a “socially engaged spirituality”? Who does it serve? What type of social engagement does it enable? Why is yoga service becoming more popular, and can we problematize this sociohistorical context?

Horton’s construction of a “socially engaged spirituality” is one that is deeply personal, and as such is very focused on the “I” question: “what can I do?” rather than the question “what can we do?” And this is particularly interesting given that the civil rights movement she cites in her original story of her six year old self holding hands and singing “We Shall Overcome” was driven by a powerful religious tradition and social network; in other words, it was a movement based on the question of what we could do, not what I could do. Churches and church networks were central in the success and spread of the civil rights movement. The movement Horton so romantically recalls in her post ultimately was one that (while diverse and sometimes conflicted) was able to come together in unity and purpose to accomplish great change, and it did so through loosely coordinated efforts on the part of movement organizers/organizations, which included on the ground activism, not just unifying sing-a-longs–though these are of course nice too. When we focus on a personal form of “socially engaged spirituality,” we can miss the potential for unified resistance, for unified transformation that the civil rights movement embodied.

My worry in the type of approach Horton uses in the re-imagining of yoga is that even while expanding a personal spirituality to include social engagement, because the nature of this engagement is not clear it’s incredibly easy to fall into the trap of ego, self-service, and privilege in application. Meaning: when our spirituality is socially engaged only on our own terms, and in ways that are geared toward meeting the needs of the one doing the service rather than the populations that service addresses, and without broader political understandings and engagement in unified social movements or activism, ultimately the transformative potential of service work is significantly lessened and, potentially, even utterly destroyed. Sometimes, service work (if done in ways that aren’t rooted in deep understanding) can actually lead to the supporting of systems of the very oppression such service advertises to fight or solve. As Uma Dinsmore Tuli has said, “Yoga is a toolkit for liberation often used in the service of oppression.”

The danger of reproducing inequality in service work isn’t necessarily a surprise when we consider who is often involved in these types of service organizations. As most people know, yoga practitioners in the USA and Western countries are often a narrow demographic group: predominantly middle- to upper-class, highly educated, and majority white. In other words, many people getting involved in these projects are privileged, and may not have first hand experience or even adequate educational knowledge to understand the types of work they are engaging in. In my own research I have heard of numerous cases where the people running these organizations know very little about the populations they are serving, and don’t have adequate training to safely and effectively serve those most at-risk (here’s one example for you). Yogis are not required to receive even basic diversity training in their certification programs. This can often lead to forms of service that are not coming from a place of knowledge, that are not actually beneficial to the communities served in the long-run, but often just bolsters the legitimacy of those engaging in the service work and teaching the classes, and props up an unsustainable and harmful system in need of drastic reform.

mlk-cfw

The tendency in the West is to individualize service work. It becomes something an individual does, or an individual organization, perhaps (as I have said before), an excuse to mitigate personal feelings of guilt for those with privilege, as a way of easing our own self-doubt and insecurities, and as a way of healing ourselves rather than a means of truly serving other people. This is largely because yoga, and yoga philosophy, is interpreted by Westerners through our capitalist, individualist, and neoliberal ideologies in ways that appropriate the ethically guided spiritual practice of yoga out of context of the profound understanding that comes through absorption with the object of our focus and meditation. It becomes a project one either succeeds or fails at independently, in relative isolation. But in isolation, we have significantly less power.

The growing trend of yoga service also often only involves the teaching of asana/postural yoga classes to at risk-populations. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely value gained by these populations through these types of class offerings! But the idea that a postural yoga class or two can somehow solve larger systemic problems is flawed logic. It is essentially a stop-gap measure; it does not cure the underlying illness, despite lessening the impact of the symptoms of disease (somewhat). Instead of listening to what the populations we serve actually need, we listen to ourselves and serve them in ways we believe (or want to believe) are beneficial. We volunteer in prisons, rather than fighting and advocating for a better system that won’t imprison so many people in the first place. We provide asana classes to poor youth (often of color), rather than addressing the underlying issues of poverty, segregation, crime, unequal education, and limited job opportunities they often deal with. Instead of engaging in advocacy, activism, and movement organizing, we engage in attempting to promote personal self-care within a system that is slowly killing us. We become complacent, and complicit, rather than resistant.

In this way yoga service can often take the form of a white savior complex, a trend where whites increasingly use service work (and charitable giving) as a means to justify and validate their own unwarranted privilege, thereby reinforcing it, rather than actually performing service in the interests and according to the needs of the ones they serve to disrupt unequal and intersectional systems of oppression/privilege. Thus, the white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening. As Cole says, “there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of first do no harm [ahimsa!]. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.”

All agree that in the last five years, there has been an exponential expansion of this sort of work, particularly in the U.S. Interest in integrating yoga practices into major public institutions, as well as in fields such as education, criminal justice, public health, social work, and psychotherapy is vastly higher than it’s ever been before. All evidence suggests that the growth of socially engaged yoga will continue to snowball in coming years. (Carol Horton, “Re-imagining Yoga, Part 2: Spirituality and Social Justice”)

One of the reasons there has been such an exponential expansion of this sort of service work is that the yoga industry has been pumping out new teachers in recent years, and one of the ways these teachers are often encouraged to gain experience is by engaging in “service work,” aka, teaching free classes so they can further their career goals. It seems radical, and progressive, and yogic (seva!), but often in reality free classes are just as much about serving the needs of the teacher as they are about serving the needs of their students, and in many ways are more focused on the needs of the teacher as they don’t always even engage in dialogue with the populations they serve. I have heard countless teachers encourage new students to teach for free, to do charity work and classes as a means of gaining experience (with the implication that the end goal is primarily to, upon gaining more experience, teach to a wealthier clientele who can afford to pay).

The growth in yoga service work has also been enabled by the continuing defunding and gutting of social welfare systems in the USA, combined with a stagnating middle class, unlivable minimum wage, and growing job insecurity that means this type of charity work in some ways becomes a means of supplementing the growing scarcity of government funded programs and support networks that leave so many populations at risk. The problem with this is that charity work is often unable to adequately fill these gaps, and as we know historically and even today of charity work, there are often disparities within aide or required stipulations on who is able to gain access to such aide that can be problematic. (For an excellent exploration of why doing “good work” doesn’t always mean we are “good people”, see this post from Michael Lee via the Huff Post.)

And finally, this is exacerbated by the fact that many teachers are limited by the expectations of their professions to present an overly positive (cult of positivity, anyone?) outlook, which typically means that political discussions are considered “unyogic.” People who engage in critical discussions and political activism in the yoga world are often seen as “focusing too much on the negative.” This limits the type of engagement yoga service workers can sometimes practice, provided they want to be seen as “authentically” yogic and to retain or grow a following within the yoga world more broadly. This is something more yoga teachers need to be willing, and able, to push back against, because ultimately a deep understanding of the world and our locations in it per a yogic practice intent on uncovering bias and living ethically requires a recognition that the personal is inherently political, and that there is no yogically sound way to engage in a “socially engaged spirituality” without also being political.

Re-Imagining Yoga: “Spiritually Engaged Activism”

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

If we truly want to engage in re-imaging the intersections of spirituality and social justice we have to take our spiritual understanding of the practice beyond a potentially self-focused “socially engaged spirituality” and instead begin to form a collective movement for “spiritually engaged activism,” where spirituality guides, informs, and even necessitates the development of a unified, intersectional movement predicated on a spiritual understanding of ethics and morality.

We need to begin thinking about how we can unify spiritually in ways that create social engagement that is inherently radical, political, and intersectional. We need to think about how we can strategize beyond just the individual level, beyond individualism, to develop a sense of collectivity and unity even as we acknowledge difference. We need to stop modeling ourselves on the current models of white charity predicated in histories of the “white man’s burden” and colonial missionizing narratives. Instead I think we should consider how we can decolonize service work, gaining inspiration from the radical potential of groups like, for example, the black panther movement, which fed millions of children through their free breakfast program while raising awareness on the racial inequalities of food scarcity in the USA.

We need to think about how we can model ourselves on movements like the ongoing indigenous resistance to climate change,  environmental racism, and corporate power that seeks to ground their resistance in spiritual traditions and experiences shared by hundreds of indigenous tribal peoples across the Americas.

These types of movements are rooted in a deep spirituality and social engagement with the world as it is (not as we would like or romanticize it to be). These movements don’t just close us off from connection, or prescribe an individual level of healing that never quite heals us completely; they open us up to building communities of activists, allies, and protectors that can provide mutual support and connection. They allow us to heal at the communal level, to heal in ways that get to the root of our insecurities and trauma both as oppressors and as oppressed peoples, because ultimately in systems of oppression, everyone suffers. The spiritually engaged activism these groups engage in is just that: action, organizing, and resistance that goes beyond treating symptoms of a larger disease and instead seek to overcome and cure the actual illness.

Perhaps, rather than solely focusing on the individual healing we can gain from a “socially engaged spirituality,” we can ask: How do we use a yogically informed spirituality to engage in intersectional movement building and support systems? How can we cultivate an intersectional, “spiritually engaged activism” rooted in yogic philosophy and practice? And how can we achieve this together? Is the model for yoga service currently gaining popularity simply not enough, and how can we radicalize it and decolonize it to be more effective in promoting industry and government changes that ensure greater equity and social justice for everyone?

Some Additional Resources:

[i] “The Black Panthers: Revolutionaries, Free Breakfast Pioneers” by the National Geographic

[ii] “End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock” via Ic Magazine

[iii] “Just Because You Do ‘Good’ Work Doesn’t Mean You’re a Good Person” by Michael Lee

Save

Advertisements

Yoga Justice/Yoga Violence: Another Race & Yoga Conference to Remember

This post is a (late) review of the last Race and Yoga Conference held in Oakland, CA this past April 2016. While it is late, I hope it is appreciated! Thanks again to those who put on the conference, especially Sabrina Springs, Tria Blu Wakpa, and Jennifer Musial.

“What is yoga justice? How is “justice” defined and by whom? How do we rethink narratives that promote justice through yoga? What kinds of violence occur in yoga spaces? How are people responding and/or resisting forms of yoga violence?”[i]

On Friday, April 22nd I found myself at the third annual Race & Yoga Conference in Oakland, California. This year’s theme, Yoga Justice/Yoga Violence, explored the ways yoga can be used as a tool to promote social justice, yet may perpetuate oppression.

After attending the prior two years, I knew this conference would provide a unique space to critically examine yoga culture today. Drawing a diverse crowd of yoga teachers, practitioners, and academics, let me tell you, the event did not disappoint!

picture1

The conference opening.

The event began with a morning keynote address by Kimber Simpkins on “Queering Yoga.” Simpkins asked us to think critically about what queer yoga is, and how we can queer yoga as students, teachers, and scholars. Yoga is not always welcoming for queer practitioners. This can be a result of studios without gender neutral bathrooms or clothing, a lack of diversity in their teaching and staff, heteronormative assumptions being taught in the content or through the language used in teacher trainings or classes, and by discouraging conversations challenging yoga cultural practices that may be inherently unequal. She argued queering yoga entails promoting classes for marginalized groups, utilizing and strengthening existing communities through yoga, and teaching informed by trauma sensitivity and awareness of power dynamics. Ultimately, to queer yoga is to make the practice political, breaking down and examining the consequences of Western commercialized yoga-for-profit so yoga can become inclusive for all bodies, including those who are queer.

picture2

Keynote “Queering Yoga” by Kimber Simpkins.

The first panel, Yoga for Profit and Sport, featured Darshini Shah, speaking on “The Yoga Alliance (YA): The Impact of a Western Non-Profit from Global Perspectives” and Ryan Laws, “Yoga, Sports, and Embodied Discourse.” Shah discussed how YA standards have “gone global,” increasingly adopted in areas outside the United States. While the YA represents teachers from over 160 countries, the main board of the YA has no one from the global south represented. Since 2013, no scholarships have been given to anyone from the global south and only to one domestic teacher of color, reflecting broader inequalities that often go unquestioned and unnoticed. Shah challenged us to question our own privilege and power (as members of the global north) and recognize that our actions in this part of the globe impact the practice beyond our borders, often in ways we don’t even realize.

Laws explored the idea of “yoga as sport,” particularly within the competitive yoga community and the organization USA Yoga Federation. While this was an interesting presentation, I would have liked to see a deeper analysis of the connection to Bikram yoga (all competitive poses come from the sequence) and recent rape cases, especially given the conference theme of justice/violence. USA Yoga is seeking to distance themselves from Bikram Choudhury in light of the six lawsuits against him for rape and sexual harassment. This is difficult, however, as the first case brought against him focuses on the victim’s loss of income as a result of Bikram’s involvement in the USA yoga competition.

As one victim put it, “He told me that if I did not have sex with him, I would not have a chance of winning that competition.” The case charges Bikram rigged the 2008 asana competition where she was expected to take first place, instead placing second to another student who was sharing Bikram’s hotel room. The complaint describes how “she has been prevented from teaching seminars or advanced classes because of her… continuing refusal to have sex with her guru.”[ii]

Two workshops were before and after lunch, one by Misia Denea on “Yogic, Body Positive Practices to Overcome Body Fascism” and another led by Susanna Barkataki on “New Faces in Yoga Leadership: A Call to Action for People of Color.” These workshops challenged the audience to engage in body positive practices. Denea provided a list of local and online resources as part of a project she is working on, and Barkataki challenged us to envision what the yoga world would look like if it reflected who we are and who we care about. Asking us to discuss how we might get to this diverse vision, many themes arose including the need to build community with like-minded people who share the same concerns, taking this practice outside studio systems, and teaching yoga as more than just asana.

A second panel, The “Authentic” Body Politic, was a powerful exploration of the day’s theme, featuring three talks: Anusha Kedhar on “International Yoga Day: Modi, Hindu Nationalism, and the Choreography of Unity,” Lakshmi Nair on “The Application of Yoga Towards Healing the Trauma of Racism and Oppression,” and Shaira Vadasarai on “Bodies Under Arrest: The Politics of ‘Decolonizing Yoga in Palestinian Community Life.’” Looking at religious politics in India,

Kedhar asked what types of violence yoga utilizes when coopted as a political tool. While the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, utilizes International Yoga Day to reclaim the Indian roots of the practice, in reality his government is very aligned with neoliberal capitalism. This means that this holiday may be about further aligning with capitalism and neoliberal policies. According to Kedhar, we have to consider how the Indian right wing utilizes a “tyranny of tolerance” through the discourse of yoga to mark Muslims as simultaneously different and intolerant.

Nair discussed how violence and trauma are stored in the body, and the ways the body can a site of radical healing. Discussing a teacher training she runs for people of color, her talk revealed how yoga offers these populations a means of reconnecting to themselves and healing from the experience of racism and oppression. One of my highlights of the conference was a video she compiled of her inspiring students on their path of radical healing and transformation, available here and included immediately below for easy access. It’s a powerful video, and I have such huge respect for her students.

Vadasarai’s presentation on her doctoral research was one of the highlights of the day. She asked: How does one practice yoga amidst regular, daily, military occupation, assault, and surveillance in Palestine? What does it mean to decolonize yoga when the materialization of colonization for Palestinians is real? Her research and work suggested that while yoga has the potential to promote a radical healing politic and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis, these romantic visions often couldn’t be fully realized on the ground as yoga couldn’t eclipse the deeper materiality of suffering and the power dynamics at play in this region. Yoga enabled a process of decolonizing the mind and self, a potential solution for the resentment, anger, and frustration that comes with occupation, and an empowering practice of self-determination in a world where one is rarely allowed the freedom to be oneself fully. But these changes could only take root on the individual level. It is all too easy for yoga to be adopted as a rescue narrative, where Westerners teach Palestinians to “find tadasana at a military checkpoint” without acknowledging that yoga may never be a complete solution to political violence.

The final presentation of the day was by Sri Louise on the “Globalization of the Gayatri Mantra.” Her talk focused on an email exchange with Deva Premal, a well-known new age musician, exploring the idea of cultural appropriation in yoga. This was an interesting discussion of the way the Gayatri mantra has been often misunderstood and misused by practitioners in the West in ways that simplify the practice, rather than preserving its roots. (See a video of her presentation here.)

picture3

Closing Keynote “Where are you from?” from Roopa Kaushik-Brown.

The day drew to a close with a final keynote address from Roopa Kaushik-Brown, founder of South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America (SAAPYA), who utilized her own personal family history to explore the meaning and impact of yoga on her own life. She discussed the “propertization” of yoga in America. According to her research, there was a 436% rise in legalized propertization of yoga through patents, trademarks, and copyrights over the last ten years!

Underlying all of today’s eye-opening and insightful discussions was the question: How do we transform our practice to be more equitable and just, without causing unintended violence and harm to practitioners or the rich history and tradition of yoga? How do we evolve the practice to be more equitable in a respectful way? How do we use yoga for justice without doing violence? I don’t think there are easy or even right answers to these questions, but I am grateful to this conference for providing a safe space to explore these issues. Until next year!

To catch up on the live tweets from the conference: https://storify.com/JenniferMusial/race-and-yoga-conference-2016

CITATIONS

[i] “Call for Papers: Yoga Justice/Yoga Violence Conference.” https://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/node/65385

[ii] “Bikram Choudhury Sued for Sexual Harassment, Sex-Based Discrimination” Yoga Dork http://yogadork.com/2013/03/21/bikram-lawsuit/

Save