The Yoga of Revolution
Yoga has been banned in several countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, and within sects of Christianity in America. Some of the bans have been lifted, others have not.
This sounds a bit silly, of course: Those of us that practice yoga know it as a stress-relieving practice that’s all about peace and love, man. These ladies even developed “Christoga,” a practice of down-dogging for Jesus.
Still, banning yoga is a very intelligent strategy, in my opinion, if you want to keep people in line.
This past week, a friend of mine sent me an article from the Globe and Mail on how yoga is manifesting as a revolutionary practice in different ways throughout the world. The piece points out that many classic versions of yoga are all about separation from the material world we live in; that yoga is a practice of escaping to some place far away from poverty, racism, gender discrimination, and clean water scarcity, which would make it a strange vehicle for protest.
However, the branch of yoga that birthed what we tend to practice here in the west—Hatha yoga via Tantra—has a different story to tell. Generally, Tantric philosophy understands that there is no "elsewhere" to go: God is already manifested in everything we live and breathe, and our choice is to experience freedom and enlightenment within this life, within this body.
It might seem strange and extreme to want to ban yoga because of its revolutionary potential but, well, that potential is exactly why I am teaching it.
A few years ago, I was coming out of my master’s degree in English literature. I loved it: I discovered black Haligonian poetry in Canada, post-apartheid South African literature, and magical realism from feminists in Ontario. I learned so much about the world from these books, and started to care about the world in ways I'd never begun to consider.
Fiction stories often explore intimate relationships and family dynamics within the context of a certain culture and political climate. You explore the personal as political because you cannot separate individual conversations and home life from the social climate you live in. I started to understand that even the practice of reading and writing was deeply political.
I would craft delicate arguments to do with race and gender in essays I would prepare over many hours and submit to my professors. I would be rewarded a grade, and then it was done: the paper felt like it disappeared into nothingness. Some academics go on to do great work bringing their politics and arguments to legions of students all over the world, inspiring many and making the world a better place. It occurred to me, though, that even if I got that far, my students would already be placed in an elite group: those that can afford post-secondary education. I wasn’t sure I could make any impact here. I felt locked in my ivory tower.
Now, when I teach yoga, I have a very rare and precious thing: a captive audience. I can talk about anything in class, and anyone who feels like doing yoga can walk right in. Not only that, but I can walk into a domestic violence shelter or a prison and teach yoga to whoever wants to do it in there. There are many organizations (like Off the Mat) that work hard to bring yoga into the farthest reaches of society and planet. Yoga isn't about separation: Ideally, anyway, this is a party for the people.
Not that I started trying to tell people who to vote for or anything. The most revolutionary thing I’ve ever done is tell a roomful of people to close their eyes and feel what is happening in their own body.
That may not sound like much, but in the end, it’s everything. Being embodied: having an experience of your own given body, on your own terms, is the deeply revolutionary possibility of yoga. Whether I choose to mention animal rights or gender discrimination or Yoga Barbie, I have already politicized my students by offering them a sensual experience in which they can think and feel for themselves. In fact, the very choice to show up and practice movement and mindfulness with a group of people is deeply, fundamentally political. It gives us back something people have been trying to tell us wasn’t ours for far too long: our bodies.